Why Smart People Resist Change and What to Do about It

Posted by on May 14, 2018

“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This saying captures the culture of many organizations these days as they struggle to reinvent themselves, stay competitive, or grow. Why is this the case, when organizations are filled with smart, successful people?

Successful people got where they are because they were good at what they do. But the same skills that made them successful can also make them closed to learning new things and embracing change.

The research on “experts” and “smart people” reveals a shared characteristic — the ability to transfer learning to new problems. They can transform their mastery of concepts and information from a set of facts into usable knowledge. Experts can quickly identify what is relevant, which is why they are good problem solvers.

But what happens when smart people confront problems outside of their experience or knowledge base? When the analogies and metaphors drawn from their knowledge reservoir don’t make sense in the current environment?

Framing the Right Problem

The problem then becomes one of framing. How smart people go about defining and solving problems is at the core of this dilemma.

Chris Argyris’ classic Harvard Business Review article, Teaching Smart People How to Learn, speaks to this “smart people” dilemma. Often the smartest people have the most difficult time learning. He postulates that highly professional and successful people rarely experience failure and therefore never have the opportunity to learn from failure. So when the inevitable failure happens, they “…become defensive, screen out criticism and put the ‘blame’ on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most.”

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Failure Is Inevitable

When an organization undergoes significant and fundamental transition, it is exactly when the system needs all its really smart, successful people ready to address the new problems that will be unleashed. And failures — some big, some small — are inevitable.

The inability to quickly learn is a huge obstacle if the key players can’t accept that they are on a steep learning curve, step up to handle failure and adopt a personal learning ethic that others can model. Unfortunately, the norm is far more often that people finger-point, play the blame game and generally back away from owning what are reasonable and predictable missteps along the way.

How Smart People Can Embrace Change

Bob Rosen, our CEO, talks about attachment to success in his book, Grounded:

“Everyone dreams of success. But when our desire for success turns into a compulsive need for achievement, then we’ve got a real problem. Suddenly our fear of failure drives our attachment to success.”

This trap catches many smart people from engaging in the process of discovery and change. His remedy for smart people:

Show others how really smart you are, not how far you can dig in your heels.

Let self-reflection reign and success will follow. Reflect critically on your own behavior, identify the ways you may inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems and then change how you act.

Learn to be self-aware. You must learn how the very way you go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right. Focus on the process of discovery … about your emotional reactions, about your blind spots, about your old patterns and dysfunctional habits.

Self-education is a lifelong process. Just because you’re smart, doesn’t mean you’re immune to lifelong learning. Importing new ideas from other mindsets and seeking out role models during times of transition or chaos are noble strategies for accelerating your own learning curve.

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