Do what you’ve always done

Performance reviews don’t work.
Engagement survey’s don’t either.
Money doesn’t motivate.
Lots of training doesn’t deliver lasting change, because half of it is forgotten as people walk out of the room.
Corporate values are rarely lived and breathed but instead stuck on walls and websites.
[Add your own known known here].

I saw yet another article recently, about the perils of the performance review. It repeated plenty of similar articles I’ve read before, and even written myself. And what started to rattle around my head was this question. How come we know the theory, but don’t or can’t make the change we want to see?

We talk about it, blog about it, even joke about it. The problems with a lot of the people stuff that we usually do are well defined and understood. Often, we even know the solution too.

But instead of actually making change, we just do what we have always done and get what we have always got. And sometimes when it doesn’t work we just do more of it only harder. And repeat.

What is it exactly, about people and organisations, that keeps us stuck in old patterns of thinking and behaviour? What keeps us doing the same old same old even when we have the choice and the power? What is really stopping us? For every Zappos and Netflix that is ignoring or down right stomping on all people things traditional, there is a whole bunch of us sitting in our offices, doing stuff that we don’t really believe in and know doesn’t work. Even when we secretly know how to do it differently. Better.

It might be the definition of insanity to keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. But I’d say it is the standard default setting for many organisations, and a fair few HR departments too.

So what stops us taking action? There are plenty of possible reasons.

Someone said that we should so we did.
We don’t know what else to do.
It’s too hard.
We don’t have the ability to influence the decision to change.
If it ain’t all that broke, why fix it?
Everyone else is doing it.
It is still accepted best practice.
We are the lone voice, at our place.

Cognitive inertia explains much. Beliefs are sticky. They endure. We rely on the familiar assumptions, the familiar ways of doing things, even when the evidence to support them no longer exists. We find it hard to update our thinking, to do something new, even when the situation or the context changes.

Sometimes, in HR, we have fought so hard for this people stuff, fought to get them on the agenda or taken seriously, we just can’t give them up. The emotion, the effort, has all been invested. We have sunk the cost so we might as well carry on regardless.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely talks about loss aversion. He argues that we naturally focus more on what we lose than what we gain in any bargain. We would rather avoid a loss than make a gain, because losses are painful. He calls it the pain of paying; it arises when you must give up anything you own, no matter what the value. He ran experiments that showed how people sometimes took an illogical decision to avoid the hurt of a loss. According to Ariely, this is why we finish a book that we’ve paid for even if we are not enjoying it, or rarely get up and leave a film in the middle even if it we are finding it boring.

Whether we are big fans of any particular process or policy or people stuff, we own it. So maybe this is part of why we can’t or don’t give it up, even when we know that we should.

Or maybe we just don’t know what to do instead of the thing that we’ve always done.

I know that some people are working hard to make changes at their place, and are trying really hard to break patterns. This post is not intended to be a criticism of anyone, just a reflection of how hard it can be to break through, to change the accepted so called best practice. How strong the ties are that bind us to the accepted ways of doing things.

When a company does throw away the rule book, we all get a little excited. We read about them, debate about them, listen to them speak at conferences. Sometimes we jump on their bandwagon, use them to get a different conversation started.

Doing something different demands much of us. To be brave. To take a small step. To break a rule, challenge a convention. To give something up. To be prepared to fail. To move beyond acknowledging the problem to taking action. Or, as I read recently, someone to put on their big girl (or boy) pants and lead.

Could that be you?