change management

Yes, Organizational Change is Hard, But...

Erik Jul

Editor’s Note: This is a response from an organizational change management (OCM) practitioner to something we published from the target of OCM change. I’m glad we can bring these two opposing forces together to find common ground harnessing the power of behavioral science. (Editor’s Note to the Editor’s Note: I might ask this target and this practioner to have future conversations in the privacy of the mind of their one writer, Erik Jul.) 


Dear Change Target:

Thank you for your recent message about your heuristic habits and biases. Remarkably self-aware!

As a way of introduction, I am your Organizational Change Management (OCM) practitioner. That is, I’m the one “targeting” you for change.

I don’t doubt your sincere attempt to better understanding between us with your writing. I do, however, doubt that you know what you or I – or you and I – should do next.

My doubt is well-founded. Since your initial review of some of the common challenges and coping responses experienced in the face of change, I’ve found additional lists of brain shortcuts, biases and foibles as long as a good expected utility maximization algorithm: 49 here, 58 here, 84 here, and, not to be outdone, 198 here. (Editor’s note: And the growing list of nuggets we have here, too!) That’s enough to cause even a change advocate to retreat from risk-taking, decision-making or action.

Before we get into that, though, let me clear things up. I do not actually view you as a target to be changed by me or by anyone else. As an OCM practitioner, however, I partner with those initiating or affected by change within our organization. Given what’s going on around here, the list of stakeholders impacted by change includes you and your wonderfully idiosyncratic bundle of heuristics.


With even just a touch of awareness and a willingness to do some slow thinking, we can become more effective partners in change.

A Comity of Errors

Change in the workplace introduces risk and uncertainty into organizational, social and market economies already filled with vagaries. This alone makes me empathize with your fast-thinking, System 1, rapid deployment of heuristics. Speedy responses appear to — and sometimes actually do — pierce the fog of uncertainty, providing what could be a reasonable and safe next step.

Where did this speedy brain come from?

Evolutionarily speaking, we are both descended from an uninterrupted line of survivors. These ancient progenitors, with their embodied decision-making neurons and increasingly specialized brain structures, did us all a favor. By avoiding catastrophic mistakes, they survived life-threatening dangers and were able to pass along not only cautionary, fireside tales, but also genetic coding, concomitant well-reinforced neuronal networks, and observable, often automatic, model behaviors.

When fundamentals such as food and safety were daily uncertainties, it behooved early survivalists to jump back from a stick more often than to pick up a snake. Every jump backwards, in a sense, was a mistake (i.e. a “false positive”), but with little or no cost. It was a stick, not a snake. But every snake handled, thinking it but a stick (a “false negative”), was a mistake with dire, perhaps deadly, consequences. That would make a great fireside story, but there’d be one less storyteller to tell it.

The brain encodes such a lifesaving “mistake,” and thousands more like them, and we still benefit even in this modern age. For instance, assuming that a car is always barreling towards you before crossing the street, while almost always untrue, prevents tragedy the one time it is true.

Of course, the type of change we’re going for here at work involves neither poisonous snakes nor oncoming vehicles, yet we all remain alert, as did our predecessors, for threats to health and safety, to interpersonal relationships, and to our own sense of self. It’s natural. It’s okay. It’s not your fault.

That said, if we are overly risk averse and change resistant, we may err in ways that are more like picking up a snake than jumping back from a stick because we may fail to realize and maximize the potential benefits of our current organizational change initiative. Heuristics and biases can derail us.


If we are overly risk averse and change resistant, we may err in ways that are more like picking up a snake than jumping back from a stick.


To Know Is Not Enough

One can readily learn the heuristics, biases and low-cost decision errors that either hurt or help us. But to know is not enough. Were it so, my entire OCM plan might be little more than a list of terms and definitions. Scan the list, find your behavioral peccadilloes, and act to maximize benefit or minimize negative and inhibiting behaviors.


To know is not enough. Were it so, my entire OCM plan might be little more than a list of terms and definitions.

Change would be so much easier: You could simply manage yourself, rationally, unilaterally and autonomously. Introducing such research, whether from the fields of psychology, behavioral science, economics, behavioral economics, neuroscience, or, more recently, neuroeconomics, would likely be of little benefit. Added learning does not often translate directly into more enlightened behavior.

As it turns out, we are more adept at spotting others’ biased and erroneous decisions than our own. We have a giant “blind spot” that thinking alone has little power to illuminate.

Like the biases and heuristics you enumerated earlier, this blind spot bias is a miasma living in a pit of quicksand. Researchers have found two contributing factors. First, a happily naïve belief that we perceive the world objectively. With this view, our behaviors and responses are completely appropriate and those we observe in others arise from their biases, not ours. Isn’t that notion alone enough to give you pause?

Compounding this rose-colored view of ourselves is the second, equally debilitating belief: That we can detect and root out our own biases through introspection. Finding none, after an introspective journey, we emerge from our delusion long enough to declare ourselves “bias-free” before returning to the blinding belief that biases exist only in others.

The problem is: We aren’t (objective); We can’t (see biases through introspection); and They don’t (exist only in others).


System 2, Where are You?

Heuristics and biased thinking habits — hunches and gut feelings — serve us remarkably well given how much of what the brain serves up is essentially made up on the spot based on what’s available in memory (let me tell you about this one time …), whatever confirms our suspicions (I knew it!), purports to avoid risk or loss (the possibility of small, negative change disproportionately outweighs positive prospects), evokes overconfidence (often wrong but always confident), creates a sense of endowment (what I have is worth more simply because I have it), or prompts you to prefer apparent short-term gains while inappropriately discounting more significant long-term benefits (spend now, save later, give up compound interest).

When making decisions in uncertainty – and change in the organization introduces plenty of uncertainty – these shortcuts can either save time and provide a plausible course of action, or, unfortunately, grease the slide into disaster.

What a potential mess!

So, let’s pick a new starting place: heuristics and biases are at work in our workplace and if they diminish your ability and willingness to adopt and support change, then they are working against us and could negatively affect our overall change initiative.

Even though it seems like I just suggested that you cannot think your way out of this, I now do suggest that you think your way out, but by using Daniel Kahneman’s System 2, or slow, thinking. System 2 thinking is more reflective, controlled, deliberative and analytical.

It takes effort and attention. The mind developed System 1, fast thinking, to avoid just such effort. Now you must expend it, and I suggest that as a first step, you spend some mental capital thinking about your thinking.

It takes effort and attention.

Take a breath. Literally. Then start down a path of considering your thoughts, positions and attitudes related to the current organizational change initiative as you understand it.

  • Are you open to critique? Have yourself ask yourself this key question first.
  • Consider whether you are too rapidly comparing an imagined potential negative outcome to a recent or impactful memory. Remember that your memory may not be serving you well. Or, as the investment ads say, “Past results are not a guarantee of future performance.”
  • Are you overvaluing what you might have to give up? Undervaluing a potential gain? A sense of endowment and loss aversion may be limiting you.
  • Are you thinking near-term only? Would your future self regret your resistance to change?
  • Have you allowed for the possibility that your confidence in your opinions may not correlate with present facts or data? What is the basis for your opinion? Be careful if it’s a gut feeling.
  • What have you done to broaden your perspectives? Actively seek out other views or sources of information.
  • Are you willing to accept uncomfortable doubt in place of absurd certainty?

Even these few effortful steps will force you to slow down (deeper thinking takes time) and may prevent you from rejecting the stick and picking up the snake.

Let’s be honest, even though I’m an OCM Practitioner, I’m just as subject to heuristics, biases and deeply habituated thoughts and behaviors as you. We are very much alike, and I’d like this likeness to become the basis of our working relationship.

Change evokes a range of natural responses, which can make us both assured – because they’re automatic, and grateful – for the cognitive ease they create, but we must also be wary of the equal ease by which we can make mistakes that prevent us from realizing the benefits of that change.

With even just a touch of awareness and a willingness to do some slow thinking, we can become more effective partners in change throughout our organization. Of this I am certain. No doubt.

Erik Jul


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