The Fear of the Unknown

Eva Andrijcic

I’d like to challenge you to a little gamble. Imagine that I show you a large jar that is filled with 90 marbles. You cannot see inside of the jar, but I tell you that the jar contains exactly 90 marbles, and of those exactly 30 are yellow, and the other sixty are a combination of black and red marbles, but the actual ratio of them is unknown. Each marble is as likely to be drawn out of the jar as any other.

Gamble A: You’ll get $100 if you draw a yellow marble

Gamble B: You’ll get $100 if you draw a black marble

If you picked A, you’re not alone! In fact, economist Daniel Ellsberg showed that in situations like this, individuals overwhelmingly tend to pick wagers for which they know the expected outcomes versus wagers for which the expected outcome is unknown. In the example above, you know that you have a 1 in 3 chance of drawing a yellow marble, but you don’t know what the proportion of black marbles is;  there could be anywhere from 1 – 59 black marbles in the jar. So, despite the fact that the likelihood of picking a black marble could be much higher than that of picking a yellow one, in general, when confronted with incomplete information, individuals select the value for which they know the outcome. This is called the Ellsberg paradox.

The marble example is relevant to any discussion of change.  For many of us, changing strategy is hard because the outcomes are ambiguous. Why change the strategy which has for so long resulted in predictable results, if we cannot guarantee with some level of certainty that the change will result in anything better? Why settle for the evil we don’t know, when we can choose the evil we do? Ellsberg and other behavioral economists have proven that people in general dislike and fear ambiguity in business and personal situations. We are wired to resist ambiguity, and recent research shows that even our close primate relatives dislike ambiguity [1].  In practice we often choose suboptimal strategies to avoid the fear of the unknown: from choosing a good old restaurant we always go to instead of trying a new one that might be better, to preferring bonds and deposits over stocks in our portfolios because of the volatility of stock prices.

So, what does this have to do with change? Very often when we ask people to join our change efforts, or when we seek support and buy-in, we might ignore the fact that we are asking people to suspend their fear of the unknown. We don’t always have all of the answers ready; the outcomes caused by our change might be ambiguous, as might be our communication with those impacted. Yet we ask people to trust us and our experience. Sometimes they might not be able to do so immediately, not because they don’t believe in us or our change initiatives, but because they are afraid of the unknown. That is completely natural, and we should anticipate that response!

So, what can we do? First of all, we can accept resistance to ambiguity as a natural gut reaction, and proactively seek areas where people we talk to might want more clarity. We can reduce ambiguity of communication by truthfully acknowledging the existence of ambiguity in the process, goals or outcomes of our change initiative. We can try to reduce those ambiguities as much as possible by drawing parallels to similar examples or experiences at our or other institutions. We can try to implement our change initiatives in increments to give individuals time to assess and adjust to the unknown. We can also point out to individuals the presence of the Ellsberg paradox – bring the unconscious to the forefront so that people think more deeply about the factors that are guiding their decision making. Continue reading “The Fear of the Unknown”

Art of Listening

Sriram Mohan

Seek first to understand, then to be Understoodblur-business-close-up-597327

As a change agent, you may encounter people who have strong objections to your change idea. Some of the critiques you hear are substantive, while others are not. The strategies that have to be employed to counter these critiques are radically different. John Kotter’s book Buy-In [1] is a great read and can help you determine the right strategy for the situation. But the focus of Kotter’s book is helping you create responses when you engage in arguments.    What is less obvious is using a strategy of silence, focusing instead on listening rather than talking. This is something I struggle with often and I have gone down the rabbit hole of engaging with a non-substantive argument, when the right strategy would have been to stop talking and start listening.

I recently attended a workshop on academic leadership and a module on listening struck a chord with me. A good change agent is often a skilled negotiator and a master at conflict resolution. A vital tool in the negotiator’s arsenal is the ability to understand the other perspective. The change agent can achieve this by using the strategy of deep listening.   According to Dr. William Ury, deep listening builds rapport, creates a sense of empathy, and increases the feeling of being heard. This increases the chances of your own perspective being heard and thereby has the potential to create buy-in [2].

So, how do you become a good listener? Much like every other tool that a change agent deploys, this is one that requires practice. A good listener has to actively stop thinking and pay attention. It is natural for you to start strategizing your response to the speaker. The focus of your thinking has to shift from your response to the speakers’ perspective. Put yourself firmly in their shoes and try to figure out what they are saying, what they are not saying, and the emotions behind their thoughts.  One way to achieve this is to ask the right questions. Asking powerful questions is valuable; however, sometimes asking questions in general is seen as a sign of weakness and ignorance and thus is not valued. Don’t worry about looking weak.  Asking the right questions can go a long way in improving as a listener.

The key phrase that I took away from the book was “humble inquiry.”  “Humble inquiry is the skill and art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person” [3]. This type of inquiry is not characterized by a specific set of questions. It is, however, based on minimizing our own preconceptions, assuming positive intent and clearing our minds at the beginning of a conversation. Asking the right type of questions to diagnose the situation at hand can be very helpful. Some good questions to consider include: Continue reading “Art of Listening”

How “Buy-In” Gets It Wrong

How “Buy-In” Gets It Wrong

By Ella Ingram & Kerice Doten-Snitker

Change leaders know that the agreement, support, and participation of others is necessary for successful change. They may hear about the need to gain “buy-in” (often focusing on surly faculty members or those all-important department heads). They may be admonished by others who say, “You have to get buy-in or this project will never go.” They spend a lot of time thinking about how to make buy-in happen. In the noble work of change, change agents spend considerable mental energy and social capital on buy-in.

The problem is that buy-in represents only one engagement goal. A change agent with a focus on buy-in invites varied problems. Buy-in is an incomplete approach to engaging with stakeholders because:

  • it is hierarchical and one-way, instead of collaborative;
  • it appears to be a first step that can be checked off a list, when the reality is that issues that block change require ongoing engagement; and
  • its perspectives match dysfunctional aspects of academic units (e.g., buy-in is oppositional) rather than fitting the approach of highly functional units.

We recommend a different strategy for change agents–one that is more holistic, on-going, and empowering to stakeholders. This strategy amplifies project success, provides new and exciting insight to problems, envisions new solutions and teams, and builds bridges instead of hierarchies between change leaders and their colleagues. The strategy? Creating shared vision. We contend that shared vision supersedes buy-in. Shared vision by its nature helps change be more sustainable and more institutionalized than change based solely on buy-in.

Continue reading “How “Buy-In” Gets It Wrong”

When Change Means Loss

When Change Means Loss

By Julia Williams
Interim Dean of Cross-Cutting Programs and Emerging Opportunities

Writing for the Mind/Shift website (where the focus is on K-12 education), Katrina Schwartz takes up the issue of how school principals and administrators can help teachers and staff deal with change. In summarizing the work of psychologist Robert Evans, Schwartz suggests that change for many people isn’t about “growth or capacity-building or learning; it’s about loss.” Evans has written extensively about change, but his observations are somewhat surprising: “Resistance to change is normal and necessary . . . If you are part of some big change in your school and you aren’t expecting resistance, there’s something wrong with your plan.”

How often do we as change agents expect a positive, enthusiastic reaction to our plans for change? Working on our own or with a team, we devise a new approach, program, or initiative, and we expect others to be as excited about it as we are. Then we are surprised when we encounter initial resistance. We may dismiss the concerns of others with phrases like “They just don’t get it!,” or “They hate change!”, or “They will appreciate all of our hard work once they see the change in action!” The tendency of many change agents is to drive on, discounting this resistance, maintaining focus on the change itself and disregarding the associated interpersonal issues that surround it. In the end, the change might be in place, but the price paid by the change agents can impact any future effort.

Continue reading “When Change Means Loss”