I Only Know What I’ve Experienced
Why do people resist change? Don’t they want things to be better?
Of course, they want things to be better. We all do. However, what is the snake-oil salesman really pitching? What kind of dystopian world is planned? We don’t fear change but fear that the change will bring something worse than we currently experience.
When leaders start promising new ways of working with words such as empowerment and engagement, employees are not always convinced. One of the primary reasons for the resistance is that people cannot imagine such a world because they haven’t experienced it.
Rumi, the Sufi poet, wrote the following poem, which illuminates this trust of the human condition.
Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gift of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.
Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say, “The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.
At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.”
You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.
Listen to the answer.
There is no “other world.”
I only know what I’ve experienced.
You must be hallucinating.
What do we do about this? How do we convince someone that something is worth pursuing that they have not experienced, without them thinking we are hallucinating?
First, we have to start with empathy. We do use that word in change management frequently, but that’s because it is fundamentally important. We have to appreciate that others may not see the change as we do, and may have different and valid reasons for being concerned. We also must have empathy for the fact, as indicated by the poem above, that they may not even understand the change and that it is possible.
Second, we have to show them. For others to believe something is possible, it is very helpful to see it. Benchmarking may sometimes be the answer, but not as often as you think. Role modeling something can be very useful. If you are asking others to do something, then you must do it first. The ability to run the four-minute mile is a historic example. It was believed impossible, but after it was first achieved, two months later two runners (one of which was the first to hit the mark) achieved it in the same race, and now it is the expectation. I like to state that you are not a role model unless someone sees you do it. This is one of the reasons for my statement. You are not just setting the expectation for a behavior, skill, or practice, but also establishing the ability for others to imagine it is real. Otherwise, when you explain the expectation, they may believe you are hallucinating.
Third, create examples, model areas, learning labs, or other methods of demonstrating how things could work differently. It is perfectly acceptable to have different groups advancing at different rates, and often desirable for this reason. With a living example, others not only can learn from what it took to achieve it but believe that it is possible. They establish both a belief and a desire, which are both required in order to achieve great transformation.