How Thinking Like a Biologist Can Help You Create and Sustain Change

More often than not – about 70% of the time  – an organization’s efforts to create and sustain significant change will inevitably fail. This has been true for decades, no matter how well-intended the efforts were, and there are many reasons one might fail in enacting change. It’s all too easy for leaders to underestimate the amount of work true change requires or overestimate the organization’s capacity to make such a change – or, simply, they might not understand that the remedy has almost nothing to do with the input into the system.

Oftentimes, the solution lies in how we think about the nature of change. We need to stop thinking like leaders and consultants, over focused on the content of the changes we’re trying to create, and more like biologists who understand the nature of complex systems and how they function. A system’s perspective provides a key to help unlock a fundamental law of nature: resistance to change is an entirely natural part of the change process.

All complex systems – whether organizations or individuals – do three things: protect, expand and evolve. When new information is introduced into any system, the system protects itself as a way of maintaining stability and homeostasis. This is entirely natural and essential for survival.

However, there is an opposite yet equally powerful force in every complex system: the requirement to expand and evolve. Therefore, all organizations and individuals – these complex systems – are constantly and unconsciously doing a dance between opening up to new inputs and protecting what’s already there.  

In our Power² Leaderlab program, we see this concept usefully applied in three common places:

1. Giving difficult feedback. If someone gets defensive or doesn’t take your feedback well, assuming that they are in a “protect mode” is helpful. Acknowledge that idea and speak to the difficulty of hearing something that doesn’t align with how they see it. It can be difficult to have that boundary poked so, rather than digging in and fighting through their resistance (or giving up and avoiding the person), understand the need for their protect mode and encourage them to also be curious about what the feedback could mean for them.

A leader we work with recently described a situation where she had to give tough feedback to a high performer on her team who uncharacteristically started to drop the ball on various projects. The employee responded defensively to the feedback, speaking quickly and offering many excuses. Thankfully, the leader had her wits about her and was able to slow things down and get curious about the defensive reaction. The employee was then able to explain that she was under a lot of stress in her personal life and was unable to take on the amount of work that was typical for her – and that she felt terrible about it. Once they got past that initial defensiveness, they were able to discuss a way to give this employee more support.

2. Asking for something – a raise, a promotion, an assignment – from your boss. One of our colleagues is a female engineer who was the only woman in her engineering PhD program in the 70’s. She told us, “For me, a ‘no’ was the beginning of every conversation. I never felt defeated by the ‘no.’ I thought, at least we’re having a conversation!”

Her experience taught us to understand that a negative reaction – a ‘no’ – is simply resistance to change. If you can expect this type of response from the start, you’ll feel more confident and prepared to jump past that hurdle and continue the conversation. This won’t always guarantee your desired outcome, but at least you’ll be ready to pivot and have a productive discussion to make your case and ask for what you want.

3. Driving a larger change process. Give people time to appreciate the current status quo, because even the most dysfunctional status quo is still an identity; something to preserve and protect. As we like to say, it’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t.

As change agents of any sort, anticipate resistance and then be curious about it; embrace it and take it as an opportunity to gather more information on the right path. Know that change isn’t easy and can take a long time – many months or years, in fact – but with the right mindset and a commitment to asking and listening, you’re setting up a strong foundational leadership practice, not just a quick fix. This helps you unblock resistance to change and aim higher in your change efforts.

If you’ve had success or failure in enacting change, we’d love to hear about it. Feel free to email us at [email protected], or tag us on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

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