Perception vs Reality: why are people nervous about change?


Woman wearing glasses biting a pencil while staring at her computer screen

According to Peter Griffin’s excellent blog post on the sad news of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, she said this in 2017:


It is not the new inventions which are the difficulty; the trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery.


And this as far back as 1983:


... this mastery of technology may blind us to the more fundamental needs of people. Electronics cannot create comradeship; computers cannot generate compassion; satellites cannot transmit tolerance


Over many decades, Her Majesty showed us by her example how it is possible to understand and use new technology without fear while preserving the essential aspects of our humanity.


But that’s not the same for everyone; I once had an employee take out a personal grievance against the company I worked at because the email system at the organisation was, in her view, too difficult to use.


We see it elsewhere too. People say things such as “Teams is terrible” or “Zoom is the best meeting system” not because these things are necessarily objectively true – they may or may not be – but because that is their deeply held perception, and therefore their reality.

What shapes our reality?


Two things shape our perception of reality: what we see and what we know.


When Galileo turned the first telescope on the planet Jupiter, he observed what he thought were tiny bright globes slowly bouncing back and forth on invisible springs.


What he could not realise was that he was looking at Jupiter's moons orbiting, because at that time no one understood the nature of celestial orbits or that some planets had moons.


His perception of reality was clearly bright globes bouncing around. But as telescopes got better, we realised what was really happening.


We’re hard-wired to accept what is familiar and that can also cause us to interpret what we see based on things that we know and are familiar to us.


This is a real challenge when dealing with technology that changes constantly.


Woman staring into a telescope that is pointed at a crescent moon in twilight

The hidden cost of change


The hidden cost of this in any organisation is considerable.


No one wants to be the person who speaks out and says “I don’t understand this” for fear of being branded a Luddite, (or worse, “just a bit past it”). The consequence: people try to hide their lack of understanding, and work with systems empirically based on what they know.


This has resulted in some forms of user interface becoming accepted as if they are a fundamental fabric of the universe rather than an arbitrary choice made by some engineer decades ago.


Which came first, the Folders or the Disk?


An example is the “folder” construct. This is an instance of what is called skeuomorphism, designing user interfaces using concepts supposedly familiar to end-users. At one time all office workers were familiar with manila folders, but how many would relate that to the folder icon on Windows in 2022?


And how many modern users don’t even know that Manila Folders exist?


There is a hilarious if apocryphal story of a Gen-Z person responding to the sight of an old-fashioned disk (remember those?) saying, “oh cool, someone 3D-printed the save icon!”


None of this is due to a lack of intelligence or education. The same effect can be observed in the most highly educated people. The woman who was so upset at our email system was a respected researcher with a doctorate and many years of experience in her field.


Red floppy disk from 2003 on white table

How to bring perception and actual reality closer


Conventional training programmes based on system features, while important, don’t address this problem entirely. Most training focuses on the features of software systems by necessity.


Software, especially cloud-based software-as-a-service, is by design generic and highly configurable. It’s down to the end-user organisation to explain how the feature set is used in any specific implementation.

Organisations often respond to this by hiring new people in the hope that they will bring the requisite skills. All too often that can create a “them and us” situation in which the new people who are seen as more skilled aren’t really able to transfer those skills (“they just don’t get it!”) and become resented by the rest.


A better answer is to acknowledge the nature of the problem and take steps to build development programmes for your people based on an open and honest acknowledgement of an individual’s actual limitations.


Tackling the root cause of change anxiety


In one company I worked at, the workforce was resisting the deployment of mobile devices on the warehouse floor.


Nobody really knew why.


After a lot of work figuring it out, it turned out that part of the problem was that there were some people who were simply unable to read and had been successfully hiding it for years out of fear and shame.


They had become adept at navigating a paper-based world successfully but realised they wouldn’t be able to do so using digital devices. Their fear influenced the rest of the workforce and created significant resistance.


Identifying that problem led to a simple solution – teaching people to read – which not only solved the problem for the business, but it also transformed those people’s lives.


However, there’s no way they could have planned for that because they simply didn’t have the information they needed. But this little anecdote exposes the most important thing about change management: the people.


In an increasingly resource-constrained world, the best way to accomplish a transformation to a more digital organisation is to uplift your people at the same time. They will feel so much more valued and loyal if you take the time to invest in them and feel more secure about their future with your company.


Not only is that good business, but it just might change lives in the process.


Ray Delany is Founder of CIO Studio and an expert in change management. Contact CIO Studio to find out how we can help with your next change project.

 

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