But it’s true. Politicians refuse to change their policies even when they keep getting the same results. Of course they will always find someone else to blame: The previous government, global economic conditions, the weather, but never themselves or their failed policies. Companies keep doing the same old things time and time again and get the same results, but it never occurs to them to do something different. Eventually they go out of business and the managers will blame “the economy”, or competitors, or the government. They never blame themselves of course. We assume that businesses are run in a rational manner, but I can tell you that they are some of the most irrational organisations in the world.
For a long time I worked as a “change manager” and it never ceased to amaze me how difficult it was to persuade other managers that if they did the same thing on this shift as they did on the previous shift then they were bound to get the same results. Fair enough if what they were doing was successful, but that was the point. The reason that I was there, in their office, on their site, was because what they were doing wasn’t successful, or at least not as successful as it needed to be.
A couple of years ago, while still working for the MoD, I was sitting in a meeting and the subject of quality management was being discussed. I was at the meeting to discuss a different agenda item so this topic wasn't part of my brief so I was just an interested spectator really. One of the people present had just been going through the most recent performance figures and there had been some notable failures. The chairperson asked if the reasons for the failures had been identified and the meeting was told what those reasons were. X number of failures for this reason, Y number for that reason, etc. So, with a slight feeling fo mischief making, I asked what was being changed to resolve those problems. I have never seen so many blank looks in one room in my life. After a bit of group harrumphing the meeting moved on to the next item on the agenda – without answering my question.
The human brain has a remarkable capacity for fooling itself. Denial isn’t a river in Africa, it is a real state of mind and I
think it’s safe to say we all experience it from time to time. We refuse to acknowledge that it is our behaviour that is causing the problem. It must be someone else’s fault. Sometimes it is but often it isn't and its important to be able to tell the difference.
I remember once having to ‘counsel’ an employee over his consistent lateness for work. His excuse was that the traffic on
the way to work was a nightmare at that time of the morning. I asked him what time he left his house for work each day. When he told me I then asked him how long he had been leaving at that time. Since he started working for the company, some ten years before, he answered. I then asked him if he had ever considered leaving for work a bit earlier to take into account the traffic conditions. He looked at me as though I was the one that was mad! Albert Einstein, you knew what you were talking about, even if you didn’t think it would ever apply to traffic conditions on the way to work.
Of course, the fact that it doesn’t occur to us to change our behaviour doesn’t mean we’re insane. Some times it just means that things aren’t so bad that we really see the need for change. We “get by”. We “muddle through”. If not that then we reach out for a helping hand and someone gives us that hand, but it doesn’t mean we necessarily see the need to change.
I am as guilty as anyone else, of course. I’m a keen golfer even if I’m not particularly proficient at the game. I have a
tendency to slice the ball so that it arcs off to the right. However, it never occurs to me to go and see the club pro for a lesson to find out why I’m doing it and how I can correct it. So my golf swing never changes and my handicap of 24 is slowly rising and will soon be 25 and I don’t enjoy the game quite as much as I could and I certainly never win any prizes. Albert’s maxim strikes again. (note to self: book lesson with pro).
Of course change is scary. We know the “pain” of the way we do things at the moment, but we don’t know what the pain will be like if we change. Maybe it will be better – but what if it’s not? What if the change makes things worse? No, we say, better to maintain the status quo. Better the devil you know.
Of course, if the outcome of what we do is in some way rewarding we will keep on doing it until it kills us. If you teach a chimpanzee that if it presses a button it will be rewarded with a banana then it will keep on pressing that button until it dies of thirst, because it loves bananas and becomes totally fixated on getting the reward.
But we’re not chimpanzees, are we? Well, actually we often behave like we are. A smoker, once addicted to nicotine, will continue to crave the reward of the nicotine hit from a cigarette until the poisons in the cigarette eventually kills them. The excuse they give for continuing with this suicidal behaviour are many and varied. I know because I was once a smoker and I used most of the excuses, usually to maintain my state of denial. If deliberately continuing with behaviour that is likely to kill you doesn’t count as insanity then I don’t know what does. I know of people who have given up smoking, sometimes for years, then go back to it again despite the fact that they know it might kill them, despite knowing that their clothes, hair and breath will smell and despite knowing that they felt so much better when they didn’t smoke. The nicotine reward is just too much for them to resist.
Of course the newly returned smokers will make excuses. Stress is the most common one. I feel so stressed, they will say, cigarettes make me feel less stressed. Of course they are wrong. Nicotine doesn’t relieve stress, it just removes the artificially induced stress caused by nicotine deprivation, but they won’t listen because they’re in denial. If nicotine relieved stress then non-smokers would be in a constant state of stress, but they aren’t. They suffer no greater stress levels than smokers. In fact non-smokers are frequently less stressed because they don’t have to worry about smelling like an old ashtray or not having enough money because of the cost of smoking, or because they spend so much time coughing in the morning that their chest hurts for the rest of the day. Sorry, didn't mean to turn this into a rant about smoking, but I've got it off my chest now.
So, here’s question for you. What repetitive behaviour are you in denial about today? Have you ever thought about changing that behaviour? Maybe it’s time you did, before you really do descend into insanity.
If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got. If you want something different then you have to change something. Thanks for teaching me that Albert.