Tapping Into the Psychology of Change


Written By: Josie Stoker

For businesses to survive in today’s market, adaptation is key. However, for a business to thrive, they  must be the catalyst of change itself; remaining one step ahead of the game, leading the field.

Whether it is introducing new software to your team, altering a well-oiled supply chain process or adding a new product to your matrix, change does not come easy. Whilst there may be logical reasons supporting adaptation, stakeholders often show resistance, and changing the minds of individuals can be incredibly difficult.

‘Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.’ George Bernard Shaw


There are three main psychological effects that make changing someone’s mind so difficult: 

  • Confirmation bias: Individuals selectively seek evidence that is consistent with their own beliefs.
    • For example, if the leader of a tech company believes the future lies in wearable technology, they are more likely to scan the news for consumer trends confirming this theory
  • The self-serving bias: An individual takes personal credit for success but blames failure on external factors
    • This often leads to over-confidence in your own personal ability… or the over-confidence in the ability of your firm
  • The backfire effect: An individual’s beliefs become stronger in the face of contradicting information
    • For example, when a team member supporting a certain strategy is given information contradicting their views, their beliefs will become stronger as they desperately avoid backtracking on their position


Take a look at the top 20 most profitable companies of 2015; they include names like Apple, Microsoft, Vodafone Group, Berkshire Hathaway and Exxon Mobil. What do these firms have in common? Adaptation. The constant stream of innovation and dissatisfaction with the status-quo has pushed these firms to leading positions in their fields, keeping way ahead of their competitors. 

‘Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful’ Warren Buffet, Berkshire Hathaway

Whilst the pace of change is faster in some fields than others (technology versus furniture, etc.), it is safe to say that consumer trends across the board are moving at an ever-increasing pace. However, ‘the faster the pace of change, the greater the premium’ (John McCallum). Market-leading firms such as IKEA have tapped-on to this idea by encouraging their own consumers to increase the pace of changing their furniture.

‘The more rapid the pace of change, the more dire the consequences of stubbornly sticking to old ways’ John McCallum, Ivey Business Journal


Openness to change varies across cultures. Whilst there are many ways of categorizing cultures, one of the simplest methods is the ‘Tight versus Loose’ model of anthropologist Pertti Pelto. Tight or ‘T’ cultures are disciplined, with strict social norms and a low tolerance of deviance (think Singapore, Pakistan and the US Military) whilst loose or ‘L’ cultures have little formality and high tolerance for those who think or act differently (think Brazil, Hungary or organizations like Google).

‘It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change’ Charles Darwin

Gaining awareness of the extent to which you are operating in a T or L environment will be helpful in predicting and understanding resistance to change. Whilst those operating in L cultures may be inherently open to new ideas, individuals in T cultures are often inherently less comfortable with suggestions challenging social norms.


1. Encourage careful, analytic thinking

  • To promote consideration of conflicting view-points, information should be presented in a disfluent (difficult) formatIndividuals can’t easily select information supporting their views, therefore have to process all information carefully
  • The aim is to 'trick' others into actually considering opposing views 

2. Be aware of your environment

  • Gain an understanding of predispositions for accepting or resisting change; don’t be disheartened by initial resistance to deviating from norms
  • For T cultures, be sure to introduce change in the least threatening way possible- remember their need to stick to the status-quo and appeal to it
  • You might want to use examples of others who have changed too...

3. Avoid confrontation and ‘losing face’

  • A threatening or pressured environment will cause individuals to raise barriers to communication- encourage relaxed conversations when possible
  • Take breaks if the exchange become heated
  • Be aware that in many cultures it is important not to ‘loose face’
    • Offer a dignified way for others to change their views without seeming like they are ‘backing down'