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Jun 14, 2011

I’ve always found that the same barriers that make us slow to change in other areas of our life are the same ones that keep us from changing quickly at work. And while I may be relatively young, that doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced it.

Take the game SecondLife for instance. When I first found out a friend of mine actually had a character (or avatar), I openly wondered what they were doing. Then I remember I sounded like my own parents asking me what I was doing with online forums until 1 am.

So when I read a piece by Daniel Wilson in The Wall Street Journal saying that the source of slow changing ways is our age, it resonated with me.

New tech adaptation is just change by a different word

In the article, Wilson writes:

A few years ago I bought an old-fashioned manual typewriter to write love letters to my then-girlfriend (now-wife — thanks, 1950s technology!). But every time I sat down to use that old Olivetti, I got the oddest feeling. Something was weird. Amiss.

Finally, I realized what the problem was: I wanted to flip its (nonexistent) on switch.

It turns out that my schema regarding keyboards was formed in the 1980s. Every device from a Speak & Spell to an Apple IIe required a plug or batteries. How silly of me, I thought. And yet … the urge to turn on my typewriter didn’t go away. I understood what it felt like to simply not get a technology.”

An overwhelming majority of the workforce population is adult, which means that any sort of adaptation of new technology can be a challenge. Or like in my case, when you have to go back to a manual typewriter after spending all of your life typing on an electric typewriter, word processor, and computer (in that order), it can be just as disconcerting.

Why does it happen?

Whenever infants or children are presented with something new, they adapt. As we grow older though, that breaks down. We focus on assimilating what we know (much quicker) and adapting to what we don’t (much slower).

As Wilson writes, we often form something comfortable called equilibrium — somewhere between full acceptance of the change and full rejection — incorporating knowledge we know with new information.

As an example, I had a friend who loved his large record collection. When the time came to replace it, many high-end stereos didn’t accommodate his record player so he had to opt for a new record player that was compatible with his new stereo. He didn’t know why he should opt for CD versions of his records when he already had them and, as he felt, they sounded better on vinyl.

It matters when it comes to the workplace

Earlier in my career, I also pushed for many changes (some admittedly more flippant than others). Some of them were very small and some were large, but I found no matter the size, reasoning or soundness of the idea, there was always resistance. Always.

Upgrading a piece of phone equipment that was (objectively too) much more simple to use and had better features had people scrambling to be last in line to receive them. Some would beg not to go off the old phones. It was puzzling.

Similarly, we adjusted our sales incentives to give higher payouts to our most profitable contracts signed. We recalculated the figures to show what everyone would have received if the new system would have been in place last year and we saw increases in overall pay by 3-10 percent.

You’d expect overjoyed employees but what we found is confusion, apprehension and even rejection of the new system. Even though we stated that they would have made more money last year and that we project that they will make more this year, people wanted to stay on the old system.

Making change work

Oddly enough, when we went back to the old system after a period of time, people didn’t want it (even the same people who clamored the most).

Wilson says later, to keep up with technology, “It only takes a grim determination to force yourself consciously to interact with each new wave of technology, no matter how insipid it seems.”

And that’s probably fair assessment of what it takes to keep up with any changes. The more you force yourself to roll with changes, no matter how you may personally feel about them, the greater your ability to deal with them. If you work in an environment that doesn’t do a lot of changes, you’ll probably be fighting it for longer, too.