5 suggestions for managing change successfully

In the previous article we looked at the problems of change processes, the role of unconscious factors and the most central bias.

Now it is time to discuss - what is behind the bias and what can we do concretely?

[In der Blog-Übersicht wird hier ein Weiterlesen-Link angezeigt]

What is behind the status quo bias?

Essentially, moving away from the status quo is perceived as a loss (it does not have to be a loss in reality of course) which gives a close connection the loss aversion, another bias. Changing involves uncertainty, moving out of the comfort zone, maybe risk – these are all elements that our brains perceive to weigh higher than potential gains. This is one of the fundamental ingredients of the “prospect theory” from Kahneman & Tversky which contributed to the former receiving the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Your current status gives a strong reference point (which itself might have been impacted by other biases like anchoring) – moving away seems to be more of a loss than a benefit.

Important: a loss is not meant to be monetary only. Giving up a routine, a concept or a used environment are other examples.

Is this necessarily bad?

It is not.

Imagine that everybody changes immediately after being asked to do so or if a new options comes along. This would not allow any stability and be a massive investment of energy to actually do it.

Our brains have a signature feature which is to act as efficiently as possible. Our neural connections strengthen when they are used frequently and when used for important information routes (they are “well-tuned” then). Patterns, learned from past experiences, helps us to gain efficiency and consequently to save energy. 

We can interpret the preference for the status quo as a protection mechanism for efficiency. Most of the time this makes sense – our routines and habits help us be act energy efficiently.

But: when changing would be the better choice for us, the preference for the status quo becomes the status quo bias: we continue with a pattern when investing energy into something new would be beneficial to us. The consequences of inaction are worse than the results of action, i.e. change.

This is tricky - every change request is a direct challenge to our efficient neural connections. There is a neural cost for change, there is a cost of learning - which has to be well justified.

To uproot an old habit is sometimes a more painful thing, and vastly more difficult, than to wrench out a tooth.- Samuel Smiles


What is a way out?

We have seen before that New Year’s resolutions are an example where individuals express their willingness to change but most of them do not succeed.

But: there are people who reach what they plan for. Hence, not every change attempt is bound to fail.

The same goes for the professional area – maybe you want to:

  • implement a job change
  • learn a new skill or
  • expand your current role or network.

 There is a chance that you reach what head for – here are some ideas how to manage individual change successfully.

1. Acknowledge that biases are present & address them

If you want to change on individual level, the status quo bias will visit you at some stage. Together with many others – it helped me tremendously, both in professional and private life, to understand my individual biases better.

The point is that we all have developed different patterns over time which trigger biases. Some will impact heavily, others less and many will not be relevant – they are individual to you. Consequently, @De-Biasing starts with you – accept that you have biases (as every other human) and address those that are relevant to you.


2. Conscious target setting

In practical life, change might not always be something you can choose – however: if you can, be conscious about it.

The first and fundamental question is if change is worthwhile – reflect what is worth spending energy and what do you expect to improve out of it. 

The second question, in case you choose to change, is to define your target in a way that is acceptable to you. Many people have a tendency to overestimate what can be done and by when (another bias…). Try to define a target where you feel 80% confident to achieve – very likely, this means a compromise of the initial idea and ambition.

Hurdles will come – it is easier to manage smaller and fewer ones during the journey.


3. Practise self-awareness when you start to move

You decided to change, you have a basic understanding of your biases – now you start to move. Changing means choosing to expose to new experiences. Your brain will take them as input to “rewire”, to establish new neural connections – to learn.

You will experience hurdles. 

Be aware what happens – which thoughts, which arguments against change appear in your mind, what is it that you do not like. Try to get deeper is to understand what is behind - ideally you can directly work on the root cause.

As said before, every change attempt is a challenge to efficient patterns and there will be resistance.

What helped me during change processes: moving away from the question “why”, in the sense of “why do I have to do this is order to change”, to “why not”. What are really good arguments not to change? I usually did not find sufficient ones, so I kept going.


4. Make it digestible

Your target might be ambitious, even when you set it cautiously.

Consider that your brain constructs new neural patterns and strengthens them over time (again to gain efficiency). Aiming for an immediately improvement leap conflicts with this. Rather go for small steps - every day, maybe every hour even – and repeat.

Bringing in some structure and breaking change ambitions into smaller components will help you to be more effective. Build in reminders on those tools or routines which you use regularly – in my case, this is the calendar. I see my own ambition and daily tasks there, which helps me realise them.


5. Increase commitment if necessary

At some stage you will be on the borderline to stop, you simply do not want to continue.

What helped me in these situations is to expose my change ambition if I believe it will be tough to reach. It can be a public statement, a bet or telling others about the progress (I might ask them to ask me on regular basis).

This kind of self-nudging can be very effective as it build more social pressure in order to continue a change process.


Change is difficult but manageable

In the first-place change is a choice – learning needs prior exposure to new situations and contexts, so that new experiences develop.

Change means meeting resistance from yourself – we have discussed some ways to mitigate these hurdles that also relate to biases.

Change is a process, not an event – it needs continuity, persistence and will which all can be developed and practised.


Change does not stop at the individual level though, the next article will focus on organisational change and measures to increase its effectiveness.

Thank you for feedback, thoughts and challenges!