Why is Change So Hard - "Patternicity" and The Fight or Flight Instinct

The question, “why is change so hard” is a difficult but important one to answer.  The change management industry wrestles with developing a concise model because the question of “why” grows in complexity as we try and apply it to ways people react to change.

The answer to “why” is different at each individual level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  An individual at the physical needs level will react very differently than one at the self-actualization level.  In addition, organizational structure affects the impact of change.  A matrixed organization will require a different approach to “why” than a highly structured one.  To complicate things further, the history of individuals and the organization also come into play.  If people have experienced recent downsizing that impacted other colleagues or endured failed change initiatives in the past, this will affect their perception of change.

Although it is difficult to develop a concise model similar to the Kubler-Ross based change acceptance curve, there are still ways change practitioners can help clients understand why change is hard.  One approach is to look at the brain’s need for order and structure and how change disrupts this need.

As human beings we naturally tend to pursue order in life.  According to the work of psychology professor Thomas Gilovich, our minds seek to develop patterns within random events.  We see patterns as a good thing and naturally gravitate to and find comfort in a certain amount of consistency in life.

This need for order, or “patternicity” as science writer Michael Shermer puts it, comes from a much earlier period in humankind when people needed to make instant life or death judgments on a regular basis.  Our ancestors’ fight-or-flight decisions had to be made quickly in order to survive.  They could not wait for the conscious processing of information but instead relied on decisions founded in subconscious patterns from past experience.

Although modern society rarely requires us to depend on “patternicity” to save our lives, the subconscious processing of patterns and our natural propensity towards order continues to thrive in our minds.  They are still the first things our brains go to before conscious reasoning has time to process the change.

Based on the patterns we have grown accustomed to from the past we subconsciously react to resist the change.  Some people may instantly respond by wanting to fight the change.  Others may choose to run as far away from the change as possible.  These natural reactions within each of us are why change is hard.

As change practitioners, expressing why change is hard is an important step in developing how we can help our clients move through change.  By including a study into the previously established patterns within the organization that the new change will break, we can work on plans to relieve the resistance caused by our natural, human tendency towards “patternicity”.  This approach, while not as concise as the change acceptance curve can help clients understand why change is so hard.