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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Change

There is an old joke about a Zen hot dog vendor and an acolyte seeking wisdom (and apparently lunch). The Acolyte says to the vendor, “make me one with everything.” The vendor replies—"that will be $20” to which the acolyte responds, “but what about my change?” The Zen vendor answers serenely; “Change must come from within.” Ok, maybe bad puns are not your thing, but the punchline is a bit of wisdom worth discussing.


Despite our irresolute nature and cognitive dissonance, we humans are generally loath to change our minds about much once we have expressed our opinions. Even when faced with seemingly incontrovertible evidence that our views are factually wrong, in the minority, or illogical, we will fiercely cling to them rather than admit we are in error, have been misled or have changed our opinions based on new information.


Our views on some subjects are so deeply embedded that it is exceedingly rare for anyone to alter their opinions. These certainly include politics, religion, attitudes about gender, and the sports teams we follow, among others. Why these subjects in particular? Because they define us, or at least tell the world how we see ourselves, and more importantly how we want others to see us. When we wonder how it is possible for someone to hold a particular view, especially those in contrast to our own, it is generally with a dismissive attitude, and only rarely with any genuine interest in why. It is no surprise then that the subjects on which we are most divided remain intractable.


Meaningful change is almost always the result of a significant emotional as well as intellectual event, the alteration of a fundamental construct. Almost always it requires—maybe even forces us to confront long-standing and closely held views. Only those possessed of a deep emotional maturity are likely to analyze and assess themselves without such prompting. For most of us an external agent is necessary.


Students of change management—a term largely employed in corporate and technical fields, are taught that systemic change follows a predictable pattern. Nevertheless, you will find that there are as many precepts for effecting change as there are letters in the alphabet. It is apparent even to a casual observer that even in these highly organized, well regimented environments change is elusive and managing the process is more art than science. But there are some key points of agreement.

If people are to change anything—even something less freighted with emotional cargo than their political views—they must become invested in the reason(s) for change. These could include disaffection for the way things currently stand, or the promise of a significant future benefit –especially a personal gain. We might think of this as the visioning stage, in which a shared sense of a better future is imagined. Some will be more willing to lend their efforts than others-and it is important to identify these advocates as they may need to do some heavy lifting with their peers when inevitable doubts and fear arise. Remember that we are talking about altering the course of something with which people have built valence over what may be a considerable period of time.


A sense of urgency is also critical—whatever the change may be, it must appear to be moving forward so that the hesitant will feel the pressure to get onboard or be left behind. Peer pressure is one of the most significant factors urging change or inhibiting it. Again, our views and opinions are who we think we are and wish to be perceived. If everyone around us appears to be accepting change, we are far more inclined to do so ourselves just as we are likely to remain resistant if the tide is flowing in the other direction.

If all that sounds hard, it is. It is made even more difficult by the speed and ubiquity of communication in our present day. You are no doubt familiar with the ‘echo-chamber’ effect of social media. These self-identified channels act as both amplifiers of a particular viewpoint and an inhibitor of contrary opinions, facts or even information. It is ironic that at a point in time when we have more access to data—to information with which to conduct our own evaluations it is so often crowded out by misinformation and disinformation that we ourselves have chosen.


Often, the benefits of making a change are far enough in the future that the balance of risk vs reward has time to fester. We humans are not given to deferred gratification. For this reason, organizational change managers try to build in some early gains to fortify a continued commitment. In our personal lives, that is much harder to do. Surrounding ourselves with a new group of like-minded people helps, but we are often left to our own devices to encourage ourselves and as anyone who has ever tried to change a deeply embedded habit will tell you the temptations to retreat are palpable and lurk around every corner. Even when we know that a personal change may improve our lives, our health, our relationships, our resolve can easily waver in the face of any adversity.


Perhaps this is the most important lesson to learn about managing our own change. We will be tempted to return to the familiar, even if we know that is not in our best interests. Reinforcement from others goes a long way, accountability partners, groups or structures also help but none so directly as our need to feel good about ourselves—even if the means of feeling good is temporary or destructive. To truly change we must learn to accept ourselves as we are—not as we project, not based on others’ acceptance, but as worthy and self-reliant. Only then are we armored against doubt, against our weak nature and habituated behavior. In the words of George Bernard Shaw: “Those who cannot change their minds, cannot change anything.”

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