I read in the newspaper this week that a gambler had bet £800,000 on Scotland voting ‘no’ for independence. A massive personal gamble, or was it?
The referendum in Scotland demonstrated a challenge present in any culture change effort. We are psychologically complex creatures, who tend to prefer living within our comfort zone, mirroring the norms of those around us.
So how do you create momentum for change and shift belief patterns en mass within a group of inherently tribal individuals who want to fit in? By creating clarity, operating with consistency and thereby giving people the confidence to believe that if they shift into an unknown world, it will be for the better and they won’t be alone.
What makes the status quo prevail?
- Making a change involves stepping into the unknown. When we operate in our known world it is safe and comfortable, but stepping into the unknown stretches us and involves risk. It's a step that we’ll only be willing to take if we think that others will take it with us, and if the vision of what we’ll achieve is clear and enticing enough. In a political debate particularly, having multiple pieces of information from different sides breaks down the clarity of the message, creating confusion and fear. Where fear is high, a ‘no,’ or resistance to change is more likely to emerge. In organisations, the need for clarity is therefore essential.
- Making a change involves people shifting the beliefs that have kept them anchored where they are today. In psychology, the concept is called cognitive dissonance – it's where we effectively create beliefs that ensure that our behaviours make sense. In his book, 'Immunity to Change', Robert Kegan references the research he's conducted demonstrating the power of this dynamic. His research shows that, even when an individual is facing death, they will still struggle to change personal health habits. The stories we tell ourselves are very powerful and anchoring. Creating a shift involves reconsidering our beliefs and choosing a different course of action, a somewhat complex process which involves individuals being prepared to step out of their comfort zone.
- In change, people will often think first about what they have to give up – whether that be a belief, safety, security, identity or their relationships. The tendency to think of change in terms of loss means that people are predisposed to listening to the messages that reinforce this perspective. In the case of the recent referendum, it was likely that the voices highlighting risks and costs boomed louder others, and were therefore easier to believe. Consistency of a positive message and clarity around vision are critical remedies to this type of thinking.
In the absence of certainty, fear and the comfort of the known are our greatest barriers to effecting culture change. I believe there is all likelihood that these psychological dynamics were at play last week in Scotland, making ‘no’ the ultimate conclusion of this historic vote.
So is there an antidote for the status quo? Clarity and consistency. In terms of both the ‘walk’ and ‘talk.’ Get that right, and you have the beginnings of a movement that might just start to shift the tide.
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