Why is it often such a challenge to change behaviour?
I had the opportunity to discuss this topic with Amanda Lang, one of Canada’s leading business journalists, at the National Insurance Conference of Canada last fall. Our conversation piqued her interest and I was grateful that she captured it in chapter 10 of her new book, The Beauty of Discomfort.
Our discussion centered around the idea that people are creatures of habit and it’s no secret that habits can be difficult to break. We see this clearly in the workplace. For example, while the ability to inspire teams to adapt to new circumstances is critical to success in the 21st century, it’s common for change initiatives to be met with intense skepticism and resistance. This is because change evokes emotions and, as human beings, many of us cling to our comfort zone and to what we know best. From my extensive experience with people, I’ve realized that if we don’t learn how to acknowledge, engage and manage emotions, the implementation of change initiatives will be unsuccessful.
Consider the story of The Frog Prince:
It begins with a princess playing with her most prized possession, a golden ball, close to a well – into which she eventually drops it. Distraught, she sits down next to the well and cries, but she is overheard by a frog who offers to get her ball if she will accept him as her companion. She promises, dismissing the possibility of such a companionship, and when the frog retrieves the golden ball, she rushes away from him and ignores his request to go home with her.
The next day, however, the frog appears at the princess’ door and asks to be let in. Though she initially refuses and slams the door in his face, the princess eventually lets him in when her father, the King, insists that she keep her promise. The princess hesitantly lets the frog eat and drink with her, and though she tries to avoid him once more, she reluctantly lets him sleep in her bed. Eventually, she embraces the frog and gives him a goodnight kiss.
It is at this moment, to the princess’ astonishment, that the frog transforms into a handsome and desirable prince.
In essence, this is a metaphor that represents what each of us goes through when we experience change –
we are all the princess.
In this story, the golden ball symbolizes our comfort zones: round, whole and precious. Losing the ball in the well represents being forced out of this safe place, which causes despair and distress. The frog symbolizes change: ugly, repulsive, unknown and unfamiliar. The princess’ first instinct was to slam the door on change, but it isn’t until she faces the frog that he eventually reveals his true, alluring self. The prince represents the reality of what ensues when we embrace change: if we have the emotional maturity to sit through the challenge of change, we will be able to experience its rewards.
The power of this story lies in the realization that the reward comes from having the maturity to face change. The reward is not within the golden ball, as the princesses initially believes, but in the undesirable frog. This story also demonstrates that change is a process – one that should start with a shift in the individual.
So how do you ensure people are engaged?
In reality, everyone experiences emotions during change; whether in the workplace or at home. It’s up to leaders to validate and understand those emotions for a shift to occur successfully. When empowering people through change, it’s important to help them find personal meaning within it.
The thing to remember is that changing the behaviour of a large group often starts with each person changing individually. When leaders acknowledge their employees’ individual emotions and give meaning to them, they will be better positioned to shift group mindsets and attitudes. Only then will the desired behaviors eventually follow.
To learn more about how my team at Circle & Square can help you manage change and transition, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Barry Pokroy is the founder and leader of Circle & Square Inc. and a partner of Farber. As a Clinical Psychologist, he has in-depth knowledge and experience in adapting the insights of psychological theory to the demands of the corporate environment. Barry can be reached at 416.496.3079 and firstname.lastname@example.org.