We Love Consistency
According to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, our brains are hard-wired to like consistency. Consistency helps us understand the world so we can make good predictions about what will happen next. If we consistently burn our fingers every time we touch a flame, for example, we learn to keep them away from fire – a good thing. We are so hard-wired for consistency that our brains reward us with a dose of feel-good chemicals whenever we make a correct prediction about what will happen next.
We especially like consistency in others. We like it so much that if someone is inconsistent on something important to us, we react strongly – we feel betrayed by that person. That’s why people running for office often try to cast their opponents as “flip-floppers”. They’re hoping to capitalize on that sense of betrayal associated with inconsistency.
We Also Love Change
Our need for consistency, however, is at odds with reality. Change is constant. Not only is the world around us in a constant state of flux, so are we. We go to school, build families, get jobs, change jobs, move, travel, etc., all of which can be exciting and highly anticipated change.
Change changes the way we live and think about ourselves and the world. I grew up in Chicago and remember being an avid fan of the local NBA team, the Chicago Bulls. When I moved to Portland, I became a fan of the local Portland Trail Blazers fairly quickly. While some of my Chicago friends saw my shift in team loyalty as natural, others saw it as a betrayal of the person they used to know.
Good Change or Bad Change?
Research tells us that how we respond to inconsistency in someone else is not based on the facts of the situation but on whether or not we consider ourselves a part of his or her “tribe.” In other words, we’re more accepting of change in others if we feel akin to them.
All of this reinforces some important things we know related to leadership and organizational change. We know that organizational change creates varying levels of tension in the people who work there because of their natural desire for consistency. Whether or not employees see the change as growth or betrayal will depend largely on whether they feel an allegiance to leadership before the change is initiated. An implication here is that leaders need to always work on strengthening their connection to followers if they hope to minimize the tension that occurs inevitably with change and have it seen as growth.
Leaders Preserve the Core to Support Change
In addition, this reminds us of another important leadership axiom. In one of the most influential business books of our era, Built to Last, Collins and Porras describe the most successful companies as having the ability to preserve the core and change everything else. These successful companies capitalized on something important by carefully choosing and promoting the non-negotiables at work – the things employees could expect to remain consistent, no matter what. It appears these non-negotiables satisfied the human need for consistency yet allowed the companies to grow and change as the times required.
The paradox is that we seek both consistency and change. Great leaders understand this. They know the non-negotiables that define who they are as leaders while staying open to changing everything else, and they bring the same clarity to the organizations they lead.
– David and Susy
n our last blog, we drew a connection between dealing effectively with difficult people and working relentlessly on knowing who you are as a leader, where you are going, and who you want to take with you on that journey. We’d like to follow up and talk about a related leadership challenge — resistance to change — and how focusing on knowing yourself well matters there, too.
As anyone who has taken an important step toward achieving a goal or initiating a change knows, leadership always triggers resistance. Knowing how to respond to resistance is as important to leadership as any other quality.
When faced with resistance, some leaders capitulate to resisters and back away from leading. Some attempt to overcome resistance by exerting a stronger will than their opponents. (These leaders more often than not fail and burn out in the process.)
Many leaders fall into the easy – but still less effective – options of trying to understand the nature of the resistance, diagnosing why the resistance is happening, working hard to convince the other side, or creating solutions that appease resisters but compromise the needed change.
The best strategy for dealing with resistance may also be the most difficult to execute. Strong leaders deal with resistance by first doing the following three things:
- remaining emotionally calm while staying the course;
- looking at themselves (instead of the resisters) to see where they might be stuck, and
- staying connected to the resisters throughout the process without getting pulled into the drama.
Leaders who work on being emotionally separate and true to their aspirations while staying connected to those they lead provide the stability and maturity their communities need to move through the change. During any crisis of leadership, the better able leaders are to stay focused on themselves – to dig deep for clarity about what’s important – the better able they are to hold steady and move forward.
~ David and Susy
First, let’s make sure we’re talking about difficult people, not different people. When asked to think about difficult people we work with, we often think about people who have different goals, values, approaches, methods, styles, and (sadly) even appearances. Those folks aren’t necessarily difficult; they are just different. Strong leaders not only recognize them as different, but appreciate the value of diversity and seek them out for different points of view and unique contributions.
Some people, though, are just plain difficult. Difficult people take many forms. Some are agitators who get vocal over any perceived slight. Some are negative gossips who engage in personal attacks and back-stabbing. Some seem to indulge in judging and criticizing projects and ideas just for the sport of it. Whatever the behavior, difficult people cause lots of discomfort, waste time, and disrupt progress.
How do strong leaders deal with difficult people? They tell them that if they want to be part of the community (family, group, team, organization, etc.), they have to change their behavior.
While this may sound authoritarian, the point is that strong leaders don’t require conformity of thought. On the contrary, they give everyone permission (including themselves) to say no, to take risks, to ask for what they need, to challenge the status quo, and to be willing to rethink everything they know on a daily basis. These permissions unleash energy, encourage individuality, and stimulate creativity within an organization. They fuel growth.
Requiring difficult people to adapt to the community means requiring conformity of behavior. It forces them to be accountable for the things they do — not what they think — that are harming the community. For example, someone with a criticism to express does so honestly, directly, and respectfully. The criticism is encouraged (challenging the status quo), but it is done within the boundaries of acceptable behavior (being honest, direct, and respectful).
Requiring everyone in the organizational community to conform to certain behavioral norms defines the values and character of the leader who sets them. When leaders assert themselves this way, they define who they are and what the group culture will become. People within the group then have a choice to opt in or opt out as followers. Setting behavioral boundaries is risky business, but it is what strong leaders do.
Leaders who are able to take these kinds of stands with difficult people know themselves well and have the courage that comes naturally with confidence in one’s core values and aspirations. This leads us to what we continue to emphasize in our work with leaders. The most effective leaders we see are those who work relentlessly on knowing who they are, where they are going, and who they want to take with them on that journey. They are not afraid to assert their well-defined selves into their community’s culture and, in the process, protect it from the invasive damage difficult people can inflict
~ David & Susy