Have you ever been given a short cut from your normal route only to feel like it took much longer than your normal route? Have you looked at the clock only to find out it was faster than normal?
This is a bias we all carry, regardless of our cultural background or upbringing. It is called the mere-exposure effect,or sometimes called the familiarity principle. And it might be the reason you or your employees struggle with change.
The idea behind mere-exposure effect is that we tend to prefer things we are familiar with, and find them more comfortable. Even if it takes longer to drive our usual route, because it is comfortable to us, we do not notice the added time. And because the new, faster route is unfamiliar, we are acutely aware of the time needed to drive it and feel a subconscious discomfort the whole time, making time seem to take even longer.
Think about how this might impact you with a change in how you work. You have done things a certain way, and now there is a new system or process that is meant to be more efficient, but it just feels so much worse.
We have all been there.
I implemented some process improvements as part of a Lean project to remove waste from my department’s operation. We did timings to understand where we were wasting time and how much faster we would be if we made a few changes. My team was bought into the ideas and excited to feel less strained.
Until we flipped the switch and implemented the changes.
The emails started to flow in about how much worse this was, and how they are so much less efficient now. I got explanations about the old versus new process that really demonstrated the mere-exposure effect at work.
“We used to just upload the document into the system. Now we have to find the document on our desktop, attach it to an email, and send it to an email address to have it auto-uploaded. It takes so much longer now.”
Of course, what this employee was doing was blowing off each of the familiar steps, and combining them into, “just upload the document.” They used to have to get the document onto their desktop (usually from an email it was attached to), go to the system, go into the file, click an button to browse for the file, find it, click “Upload” and wait for the page to refresh. Total time was between four and six minutes, depending on file size and system responsiveness that day. Oh, and the uploads failed about twenty-percent of the time.
Now, they could forward the email with the attachment, and drag and drop it from their computer into an email addressed to an inbox that had some automation running in the background, put the client name in the subject field, hit “Send” and that was it. Total time was between one and two minutes.
In another situation, we stopped doing a process that had no purpose anymore. One member of the team was still doing it, and he said, “Oh, it’s fine, it does not really take much time.”
It was pure waste–it was time spent with zero value at all. But because he was used to it, breaking his habit felt more uncomfortable than the wasted thirty to sixty seconds spent doing the task.
So what can you do to combat the familiarity principle to ensure you are ready, willing and able to take advantage of changing your business for the better?
1. Admit there is a problem.
The first and most important step is simply to be aware of it. Not just the concept of it, but being aware of it when it is at play. When you go into a change situation, have your eyes wide open that you are likely to feel uncomfortable, and the new way of working may seem worse.
2. Suspend judgment for two weeks.
The second step is to give it time. I asked my team to just accept the change for two weeks, making note of concerns, but not giving up on the change, and holding those concerns until after the two-week period. If there was some show stopper, of course they should raise it up. Other than that, they needed to just hold the comments they were compiling until after that trial period, then they could come to me and let it all out.
I did this with a new system implementation years ago. The users–who had all signed off on the system in testing–revolted when it went live, claiming they were now completely unable to do their jobs. I acknowledged their concerns, saw that they could in fact still work, and told them we would make the call after they stuck it out for two weeks.
What happened at the end of the two weeks? Productivity was up roughly thirty-percent, and the most vocal person on the go-live day was now saying how we could not take this away from her as she was so much faster at her job and there was a lot less frustration to deal with.
That was not because we did anything else during those two weeks. The system was exactly the same as the day they revolted. They just got accustomed to it, and then it felt comfortable.
Bonus tip: It’s okay.
Change is inevitable. And aversion to change is human. There is no need to judge yourself or others for the reaction–just help them through it.
Be aware of the natural, initial discomfort, give yourself a fixed trial period where you stick it out, and then you will usually surprise yourself with how much better things are.
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