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Change Leadership: Why is Change So Hard, Even When You Want to?

Quite a few years ago, I was hitting golf balls with my 5-iron, when Kelly, my golf instructor, asked “Larry, what do you want to get out of your lesson today?” I told him of my frustration of hitting a short 150 yard slice (ugly) and I want to hit a 175 yard shot with a slight draw (beautiful!). After hitting a few balls, Kelly showed me a “strong grip” – which is not about how firm to hold the club, but rather the location of the hands on the club.

I tried hitting the ball using this new grip, and I swear, I could hardly get the club face on the ball. After a number of tries, I turned and looked at Kelly and said in frustration, “Kelly, I can’t hit the ball this way. It just feels too strange. Let me go back to my old grip and show me something else!”

I will never forget the look on Kelly’s face. He said, “But Larry, it is SUPPOSED TO FEEL STRANGE! If it doesn’t feel strange, then there is no change, and if you don’t change, you will never hit a 5-iron 175 yards with a slight draw!”

What a lesson! Yes, I can still hit that shot, but that’s really not the point. The biggest lesson for me was, how change can be so difficult, even when I wanted to result of the change! Here I was, a relatively inexperienced golfer, wanting to become a much better golfer, and yet, making the change was so challenging.

Why is Change Hard? Cognitive Bias

Haven’t you ever wondered why it is that change can be so difficult, hard, upsetting, takes a long time, challenging – even when the business case for the change is so promising? These are but a few of the many descriptions that any of us have experienced when going through some change. Whether it’s landing a new client, going to a new job, changing strategic direction, learning a new software program, acquiring or being acquired, or combining corporate entities – all are ripe with changes, some small and some big.

We can look to the decades-long studies of Cognitive Bias to help shed some light on possible answers to this question: Why is change hard?

Cognitive bias can be loosely defined as a systematic, automatic pattern of observing or evaluating things around us, and from this, draw conclusions, make decisions, and behave in ways consistent with these biases. Part of what it is to be a human being includes cognitive bias.

In fact, when you really study different biases that we all have, it is obvious that cognitive bias is a way of describing the way our brains work, and have been working for generations, which allowed our species to survive. Many cognitive biases are so automatic that they don’t seem like a bias at all.

For example, if you look at the following illustration, what do you see?


Is your answer: A box? A square? 9 random dots?

We generally would not see “9 random dots”, although technically that is exactly what is shown. We can’t help but see a box, or a square, or some pattern. So one type of cognitive bias – we look for patterns in things. In the illustration above, try NOT to see a pattern.

3 Types of Cognitive Bias

Here are a 3 types of possible cognitive biases that could explain why change can be so difficult, even when we WANT to change:

Congruence Bias

Congruence Bias is the tendency to test hypotheses exclusively through direct testing, instead of testing possible alternative hypotheses (indirect). The classic example was discovered by Peter Wason who presented subjects with a number sequence “2, 4, 6”, telling the subjects that the sequence followed a particular rule and instructing them to use logic to find the sequence logic.

  • When asked for their answer, they responded with “ascending by + 2”.
  • When told they were wrong, they then guessed “the previous two numbers summed equals the next number”, which was also incorrect.
  • Most participants felt much stress and confusion by the test although the answer was simply “a group of numbers that are ascending”.

We often will jump to a conclusion especially if we perceive a pattern. Thus, instead of a subject testing to see if saying “5” was the wrong answer (thus proving their theory) they instead decided to test numbers they thought would be true.

Loss Aversion Bias

This is the natural tendency for humans to value avoiding loss much higher than the risk of potential, even if that potential gain far outweighs the potential loss. Studies have shown that the pain of a loss is almost twice as strong as the reward felt from a gain.

Status Quo Bias

This is an emotional bias; a preference for the current state of affairs. The current baseline (or status quo) is taken as a reference point, and any change from that baseline is perceived as a loss no matter how irrational.

So you can imagine that when someone has done something the same way for a long time, and they have been rewarded for delivering a given result as a consequence of that, trying to change could be very challenging. After all, they are losing the tried and true way of getting something done. And losing their status quo way is more painful than the potential of some gain based on changing.

The Real Problem and What is Required

Now for the alarming part. Yes, we can hypothesize why change can be so challenging. And we can describe behaviors and actions, and justify it because of what we know about change. But this is woefully insufficient in MOST major change initiatives, due to enormous consequences from error (energy industry as an example).

We see little evidence of cognitive bias being acted on in many industries, including the energy industry. What we see are engineering approaches designed to control cognitive biases through tight processes and technology – and these approaches do not work. If you visit company training centers you will see impressive programs and technologies, but little to no awareness of cognitive factors. If you speak to energy executives about cognitive biases you will likely hear some version of “we are attempting to engineer it out via processes and training”. Cognitive bias is NOT controlled by process nor eliminated by training.

What is required is changing people’s actions and collaboration between people… change leadership. This uses the creativity and resourcefulness of people to learn and to be engaged. Action requires strong leadership commitment – really transformational leadership – given very fundamental contexts and cognitive biases will be challenged.

Our approach at KingChapman is to recognize these challenges in any change scenario, and to provide the guidance and direction to transformational leadership as a successful way of making these changes.



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