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"It's just the way it is" - six facts about change

The best way to predict future human behaviour is to look at how humans have behaved in the past.

The above is a long-standing truth of psychology, although not everyone buys it.

This is possibly because it rather insensitively deflates people's long-term plans to become new and better people.

In all probability, your life will look roughly the same a year from now - the distribution of time you spend at work and with your friends/kids/partner will be the same.

That's saying nothing of the content of your day-to-day work if nothing revolutionary happens.

Your tendency to dwell on the above is also likely to be about the same.

Most things will simply go unchanged if there are no major changes to your circumstances, like leaving a job or starting a new one, or gaining or losing a family member.

And this is just fine if you enjoy your life.

However, things start to look a little bleaker if you continually fall short on the job, don't get on well with your nearest and dearest, or are lumped with employees who systematically underperform.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel - read on to find out more!

Twenty years ago, Judith Oulette and Wendy Wood were already looking closely at the factors that affect behavioural changes. They went on to publish their findings in the Psychological Bulletin, vol. 124.

And this is serious stuff. What they presented is known as a meta study, based on no fewer than 64 previous studies in the field.

Although their study is getting on a bit now, it is based on extensive material (and has been cited in more than 1,600 other articles).

The article is called "Habit and Intention in Everyday Life - the Multiple Processes by Which Past Behavior Predicts Future Behavior" and is an exciting milestone for anyone who is curious about how our behaviour, intentions, norms, and attitudes interact with and affect each other.

The conclusions it draws are:

1: Context has a huge impact on people's willingness to change

In a stable context - i.e. where the environment has not changed to any great extent - yesterday's actions are more closely linked to future behaviour than to the intention to change.

Things we often do, such as coming (late) to work or being (in)adequately prepared for an important meeting, will most likely continue in the future, even if we promise hand on heart to be a new and better person.

If we combine people's built-in inertia when everyone is well settled in an organisation together with weak leadership, we can understand why people get upset and say that some things are "just the way it is".

But they aren't.

Some things aren't just "the way it is"; they're just the way people are.

2: "It's just the way it is" - the final capitulation

"It's just the way it is" is an often-used excuse not to change things.

Interestingly, such a position is often found among those who feel a lack of control over their own and others' organisational behaviour.

So if you come up against someone who says "It's just the way it is", the odds are that they mean well, but have a negative attitude towards the circumstances and feel powerless in relation to both past and future events in the organisation.

3: Old habits in a stable environment eat everything else for breakfast

You've maybe heard the saying "Culture eats strategy for breakfast"?

It may sound a bit more drastic than "It's just the way it is", but it's pretty much the same thing.

Based on the research report, we can conclude that past behaviours dominate everything else - in a stable context.

By looking at things from different angles, we can also see that the strong correlation between behaviour and context indicates that a stable environment is a defining factor in itself with regard to changing behaviour.

Put another way: a stable context always risks constraining people's good ambitions.

But a stable context can also help to maintain positive behaviours.

And the opposite is also true...

4: A changing environment makes it more difficult to maintain habits - good and bad

Businesses that periodically change their structures, roles, responsibilities, and processes have the changing behaviour of their staff in the bag, regardless of the objective of the organisation.

For better or worse, a changing environment requires changes from the people in it.

And businesses that don't periodically change - e.g. entrenched bureaucracies - can achieve only limited behavioural change among their staff, simply because of their organisational stability (which of course is the very essence of bureaucracies; i.e. a business regulated by structures, not individuals).

But established behaviours in a stable structure are not necessarily a bad thing (and change is not necessarily a good thing either).

Imagine, for example, a well-functioning school that has operated under the same conditions for a long time, with a clear division of roles between the various professions, where administrative processes and initiatives for especially needy children follow proven routines, and with proven methods for dealing with acute problems.

Sounds great, right?

It's difficult to establish long-term sustainability if every day is devoted to fire-fighting.

5: Perceived control is a decisive factor for change

This is interesting.

Note that it's not necessarily about actually being in control of everything happening around you.

It's enough to feel that you're in control of what matters.

In short, an overwhelming majority of all research and experience in the field indicates a certain degree of perceived autonomy - in how we choose to try and reach our goals although not necessarily in setting those goals ourselves - is decisive for positive development and performance.

The same is true whether we're talking about children, adults, or the elderly.
We can conclude that school staff may have the most managers and superiors in the whole of society (closely followed by the police and health-care professionals).

MPs, municipal politicians, civil servants, regulators, commentators, pundits, internet trolls, and researchers with special expertise - they all claim to know what to do better than the staff themselves.
The risk is that staff then feel a lack of control over their situation, and so are unable to find either the ability or willingness to change their behaviour.
So although it feels like it's just way it is, it's just the way people are.
Something to consider, perhaps, the next time you decide to advocate school reform.

6: Intentions have the greatest impact on infrequent behaviours

Good intentions have a greater effect on infrequent behaviours than the things we do every day.

Although this may sound obvious, it has some remarkable consequences.

Let's keep the school as our example, where it's fairly easy to modify routines for Christmas celebrations (which occur once a year), but more challenging to create a safe and stable learning and working environment (linked to daily behaviours).

A key reason for the above is that annual activities go against the norm.

In addition, it's a welcome relief to mess about with loaded symbolic issues that aren't of any great importance in day-to-day life.

We get used to day-to-day life, even if it affects us more than some Christmas celebration.

And that's the whole point, for better or worse.

Posted on July 26, 2017 9:16 AM |