Why is it so difficult for people to downsize

by: Frank Weber

Changes are omnipresent, but we humans don't like change management. It is widely known, the much-cited saying that the only constant in the universe is change. This knowledge comes from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus and is around 2,500 years old. Actually, we humans should have managed to deal purposefully and successfully with changes in this period of time. Nevertheless, depending on the survey, between two-thirds and three-quarters of all change projects fail and of the remaining around 80 percent do not meet the planned goals in the first three years. Dealing with changes is therefore not a real success story, despite the “ancient” knowledge.

In principle, the term change does not contain a positive or negative evaluation. Nevertheless, a linguistic-psychological assessment often takes place in everyday life and in most cases it has a rather negative connotation. Why is that? In the professional and also in the private environment we constantly encounter changes, but rarely initiated directly by us and usually they come as a surprise. This shapes their evaluation by us. Changes disturb the equilibrium we value so much, they bring about turbulence. They force us to rethink and readjust the way we have done so far. Regardless of whether you evaluate the change positively or negatively, first you are hanging in the air and do not know ad-hoc how it will go on, how long this state of limbo will last and whether it is not even going in an undesirable direction. Anyone who feels insecurity in this situation or even has doubts about their own effectiveness, who believes they are losing control, will tend to cling to the apparently tried and trusted and reject change as fearful.

Change is stress
Whenever we are confronted with a change situation, we evaluate it according to the pattern of the reflective threat assessment. The focus is on the two “questions” as to whether the situation is threatening and manageable. Depending on the outcome of the exam, fear, reactance or curiosity as well as careful handling of change arise. This model describes the functioning of the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in our forebrain that coordinates the activities of our three brains.

The primal reptilian brain is located deep inside the brain on the brain stem. It contains a number of age-old behavioral programs that induce snakes, for example, to behave in what we see as a rigid, instinctive way. This part of the brain has been virtually unchanged for 200 million years. Correspondingly, the behavior programs initiated here follow, "memories from old times", which are not changed by newly gained experiences. The reptilian brain does not learn. Above this reptilian brain lies the ancient mammalian brain. Humans share this limbic system with cats, rats and rabbits. Here vital activities such as eating, breathing, sexual behavior, but also fight and flight reactions are controlled. The new mammalian brain has wrapped itself around these two rather primitive parts of the brain. This cortex is home to abstract thinking, creativity, and invention. This is where our human mind is directed.

The neurological function of the amygdala can best be described as a switch that either triggers the reptilian "flight or fight" response or activates the frontal lobes of the cortex and thus deliberation and intuitive intelligence. All information from the sensory organs makes its way to the amygdala in milliseconds. By suddenly cutting off the direct connection to the cortex in situations that are perceived as threatening and uncontrollable, the organism can react before it has even realized WHAT is going on. Thus, an evolution-proven emergency program is running, which is controlled from our reptilian brain. At this moment, our instincts of reason and our emotions are superior to conscious thinking. Biologically, one speaks of stress in these situations.

People have different resources to cope with their lives, which should be in balance:

  1. Psychological and personal resources such as empathy, social attitudes or the feeling of self-efficacy.
  2. Object-related resources such as ownership and status symbols
  3. Cultural resources such as marital status, job security, participation in decision-making processes or autonomy
  4. Energy resources such as knowledge, time, money or health

If this balance is disturbed, i.e. if we recognize a loss or change in resources, we can experience stress. To this extent, stress is to be understood as a warning system for loss of resources.

Changes in organizations cause exactly that, a disturbance of the perceived balance of our resources: Will the job and thus the income still be secure? How will the general conditions of work change? Are decision-making freedom, autonomy and freedom of design restricted? Or to put it more simply: will the company car and the beautiful large office remain? This explains why we occasionally blush with a hot temper and react to changes that are occurring without seeming to think about it - changes trigger stress, not just colloquially.

Separation, the "ugly" side of change
After this initial shock phase, changes lead to the fact that people have to open up to something new, which is often uncertain, and thus have to say goodbye. Saying goodbye triggers (strong) emotions in many people. Letting go of the familiar scares us and fills us with insecurity or sometimes even with the feeling of abandonment. Socially, separation is one of the few taboo subjects that still exist. Regardless of whether it's a divorce or a professional separation - whoever separates has lost. A pre-development of this kind does not make it easy to deal openly and neutrally with changes in the professional and also in the private context. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that company change projects are (initially) not welcomed with open arms and the seeds for their failure may thus be planted. Seriously changing means saying goodbye and accepting separations as meaningful, and neither is easy.

Why different? We are so good!
A further complicating factor is the operational “we have always done it that way”. According to the Indian-American Prof. C.K. Prahalad finds this behavior especially in successful companies. This is where it is particularly difficult to recognize when an organization needs to change. According to Prahalad, the reason could be that these companies have developed certain ideologies of success over time. Often times not written down doctrines that have also become part of the company's DNA and by which every employee knows: This is the way we do things here. There is a broadly shared understanding of how one's own company asserts itself in competition, how performance is measured, how the organization is designed and which employees are promoted. The danger is that these (previous) success factors will turn into seemingly irrefutable truths that will no longer be questioned by anyone. In view of the ongoing change in the world, it would be more appropriate not to look at opportunities and risks from the usual perspective.

Successful change - nature as role model
Preservation can therefore be harmful. Starting with top management, executives in companies and organizations should also strive for a culture of conscious forgetting. So why not learn from the most successful company ever? For 3.7 billion years, nature has shown us very successfully how to survive under difficult conditions. Roughly speaking, she knows two principles:

  1. Change what didn't work or what no longer works
  2. Keep the tried and true

The emergence of new species and their extinction is the principle of evolution. Species that are less well adapted to the environment are being displaced and replaced. On the other hand, nature also tries out a lot. But when organisms, structures or compositions prove themselves, they are continuously reproduced or passed on.

Separation competence instead of separation anxiety
It is precisely this successful model of weighing up proven and not (no longer) proven in the company to cultivate and, as Prof. F. Malik calls it, to establish systematic waste disposal. One of the tasks of executives consciously desired by top management should be to find out which rules, operational exercises, behaviors and ideas no longer work or, under certain circumstances, even damage them; and they have to find ways to replace them. Both the learning curve and the forgetting curve are equally important for creating companies that are willing and able to change. In these, separation competence takes the place of separation anxiety. Separation-competent people feel when it is time to leave out or stop. They recognize the point in time for changes. You can say no, break away or set yourself apart. You have the ability to end something when the balance sheet is no longer correct or a project or business is no longer successful. Separation-competent people can also say yes to something new and get involved with it intensively. You are curious and support change projects. You will recognize yourself in Hermann Hesse's motto “There is magic in every beginning.” But separation-competent people are not gamblers. You are well aware of the hesitation before the effort of detachment, the associated uncertainty and also the discipline that this process requires. But you are willing to get involved and have learned to deal with insecurity and the pain of separation. They are also able to recognize visions of the future and draw the energy from them that is necessary to cope with dry spells.

It is not necessarily the changes themselves that fear us humans. What causes fear is the attitude towards the new, but also the way in which we encounter the new - in the operational context, that is, how changes are "introduced". From this point of view, it should therefore not be about the management of changes, i.e. change management. Questions of leadership appear to be more important. The term change leadership would therefore be more appropriate.

Follow-up post: http://www.hrnetworx.info/hr-blog/item/143-change-management-und-der-ritt-auf-der-welle

The author:
Frank Weber is an independent management consultant under the brand weber.advisory with a focus on leadership, communication and change, as well as a coach for executives and a trained mediator. As a lecturer at Fresenius University, he teaches change management and corporate identity.