Five Myths About Change

change myths

Change is so ubiquitous and pervasive that we ought to be familiar with it, and yet we continually fail to respond well to change. Often, this is a result of our not having thought carefully about the nature of change, and our tendency to accept common beliefs about it.

Myth #1: You can change other people, given time.

Reality: Other people cannot be forced to change under any circumstances. To try to change another person by force is a waste of time and energy. A wise man once observed that you shouldn’t try to teach a pig how to sing: it doesn’t get you anywhere and it annoys the pig.

Application: William Glasser, in his book Choice Theory, builds on the essential truth that we are only fully in control of our own behavior and that we cannot force change in other people. Even a man with a gun to his head cannot be forced to comply, as many people have demonstrated through history, preferring to die over behaving in a way which goes against their beliefs.

Once we accept this basic limitation, we are much freer to operate.  Instead of wasting energy trying to force change in others, we can start to relax, focus on changing ourselves and stop worrying about other people. In so doing, we actually become more likely to influence others by setting an example of proactivity and self-reliance.

Myth #2: Crisis leads to change.

Reality: People often think change can be precipitated by a crisis or a shock. We might think, for example, that if a heavy smoker or an obese person has a heart attack or is diagnosed with a serious illness, that he will be shocked into changing him lifestyle. This is not the case. Research shows that 90% of all coronary bypass patients do not significantly change their lifestyles to improve their health in any sustained and meaningful way.

We are so good at playing mind games with ourselves that it is all too easy to justify our own inertia and resistance.  If we are in our comfort zone, we will come up with any number of reasons to avoid moving out of it. The truth is that we don’t like change and we will literally risk our lives to avoid it.

Application: Change comes from the inside. External events do not force change. If you’re serious about change, only you can make it happen. A crisis might throw you off equilibrium for a while, but your mind is such a devious and slippery thing that you might be surprised at how quickly you settle back into the old routine. Being aware of this tendency can put you on your guard – forewarned is forearmed!

Myth #3: Fear leads to change.

Reality: Most of the fear we feel is maladaptive. Fear is an essential biological response adapted for our physical survival, but in our modern environment, fear pops up as a response to many non life threatening situations. The best thing to do with this kind of fear is to face it and see it dissolve.  But people do not usually respond in this way to fear, falling instead into avoidance patterns. This avoidance often manifests as a resistance to change, which is often perceived as threatening.

Using fear to force people into change is usually counterproductive. All the health warnings and graphic photographs on cigarette packets, for example, have not been shown to reduce the incidence of smoking. People simply stop looking.

Application: People will generally respond better to positive feedback. People can be inspired to change if they can see some tangible benefit to themselves or people they care about. The best way to encourage change is to paint a compelling and positive picture of the future, spelling out clearly the benefits of the change. The ‘carrot’ does not guarantee results, but will be far more effective than the ‘stick.’

Myth #4: Change can be avoided

Reality: We have a natural tendency to resist change, but this is not the same as avoiding change. We can resist getting older, but obviously our resistance is not going to be effective. Change is coming, ready or not. We can ride the wave of change or be submerged by it. This is essentially our only choice.

Application: To demonstrate his inability to resist the natural cycles of nature, King Cnut ordered his retinue to carry a throne onto the beach so that he could command the tide to turn back. Cnut’s courtiers were amazed when the tide failed to respond to the king’s order and the water started lapping around his feet.

The only sensible option is to be observant, notice how change is happening, and work with it, learning how to adapt and turn the natural course of things to our advantage. Call it ‘going with the flow,’ the old Taoists were masters of this art. In nature, the adaptable survive; those unable or unwilling to change go to the wall.

Myth #5: Change is always the answer

Reality: Some people (a minority!) love change and they seek to promote it at every opportunity, thinking that change is always the best course of action. Perhaps you’ve worked with or for someone like this. A manager who constantly tries to change everything can produce a chaotic, unstable and unproductive environment. We are often tempted to meddle, but sometimes, the best thing is to leave things alone.

Application: Don’t assume change is the best thing. Find out about the situation. Make sure you really understand what is happening and why, as far as you can. Change is sometimes called for, but not always. Remember the wise old saying – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Do you agree that these are myths? Have you noticed other myths about change? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

12 thoughts on “Five Myths About Change”

  1. Interesting post. I always enjoy reading about the dynamics of change and people. Your point about crisis and change is spot on from my perspective. A crisis can create a powerful motivation, but only for a shot while. Then it’s back to the drawing board.

  2. Mark, this is one of the best posts I’ve ever read about change. You write in a very clear and concise way supporting your ideas with good examples and good evidence. It reminds me of reading a persuasive essay and I was persuaded. Very good job!

  3. I completely agree, that personal change only occurs when we accept it; you absolutely can’t make another person change – if they are to change, they will do so in their own time and on their own terms. Change may spontaneously occur around us, but that’s external and it’s within our control to decide how we respond to it – but again, that’s our choice.
    Fantastic post, one to bookmark for later, thanks!

  4. Nice post! Very nicely laid out. Although I personally love change – through self-improvement I’m always looking for better ways to do something but my girlfriend hates it and I’ve gained first hand experience how many problems myth 1 can create. I suppose I fit into the myth 5 category – but I’m not sure it’s a myth, it’s working so far. :p

    1. Hi Craig,

      I’m also one of those people who generally loves change in some areas of my life, but not in every area. I think it’s hard to generalise. I do think that sometimes we need to stay still. There is a temptation to assume that if there’s a problem, we need to change something, but unless we really understand the underlying mechanism of which the problem may be a symptom, any change we make might be counterproductive.

      1. Totally agree with you on this Mark.

        It works with life as well as any other tangible thing. Not all change can help unless we first understand how things need to be changed, or if they really need to. Great post you have here BTW. I enjoyed reading your 5 myths. Myth 2 specifically speaks to me. I’ve met many people who have undergone great crisis. They change for a while but when life goes back to normal, they revert back to their old ways. I guess people tend to really be forgetful.


  5. Great post. It is so true you can’t change other people (and a lot of relationships would probably imrove if everyone realised this!)
    However I think if you change yourself, your reaction/interaction with others is different and they respond differently to you. If you really change your attitude, it will seem that others have changed, simpy because you have.
    Best wishes,

  6. Mark,
    An excellent post…very succinct, well stated, and demonstrating real insight. As I have aged (seemingly at an ever-accelerating rate) I have come to recognize the virtues of change. I used to push back against it, trying to control the degrees of chaos that ultimately we write off as “fate”… Now I take a more pragmatic approach. One very sage entrepeneur once told me that we need to accept 3 things in life: Death, Taxes, and Change.
    My career over the last 25+ years has centered on behavior change, either in consumer promotional marketing or organizational behavior. There are four fundamental disciplines that I find central to all behavior change initiatives: (1) Alignment – getting the individual or group to be aware of, knowledgeable about, and understanding of change; their role in it, the bigger picture, and how they may adapt it; (2) Willingness, and (3) Ability – People need to be willing and able to change…Whether you are talking about employees or consumers or a distribution channel, or for that matter, seeking to start a church, run for office, or get your kids through high school…. Change won’t happen unless the individual(s) are prepared to successfully adopt a new behavior or amend their current behavior, from both the standpoint of posessing the knowledge, skills and competencies to change, and are emotionally connected to the desired future state. Finally (4) there must be some form of measurement in place to know where people are starting, how far they have progressed toward the objective outcome, and when they finally achieve the goal of change.
    I would love to exchange ideas with you, and hope that you will consider this invitation to come visit me at ideationz (my blog). Thanks again, Mark.
    Rick S. Pulito
    PS – You can expect to find a link to this post at my site fairly soon (!)

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