Leading change can be challenging, but one would think the medical profession would be the most open to change. After all, they are smart, science-oriented, evidence-based professionals and therefore unbiased, right? Not exactly. I was recently reminded of this when I read a PBS News Hour article on medicine (“The new truth about Aspirin, and your doctor’s slow uptake of medical evidence” April 7, 2019). My conclusion from this article: change is hard. Period. Here are five transferrable principles from medicine to leadership on dealing with the challenges of leading change.
1. Fear of loss and risk is a powerful influencer of why we do what we do.
In the medical profession, doctors sometimes practice what is called “defensive medicine,” giving patients tests they want even though the evidence shows those tests are of little benefit. Leaders often do the same. We can sometimes give our customers, clients or members what they want, even when it may not be best. Why? Because it is easier than losing them, having a conflict with them, or being sued! But another fear may be lurking – one that is not talked about but drives a lot of leaders, pastors and managers – fear of us not being needed and losing our positions. Never underestimate the power of fear in resisting change.
2. If you think learning is hard, just try unlearning something.
The longer you have believed, practiced or produced something, the harder it is to change. Doctors have been taught the solutions and best practices from their early days in med school. And the longer they have had those solutions embedded in their brains and daily habits, the harder it is to change them. This is true for leaders as well. The longer we believe something and the older we become, the harder it is for the brain to accept that there might be an even better way. After all, the brain does not remain pliable forever. As we get older, it loses some of its flexibility. Keep this in mind the next time you try to promote a change or someone wants you to consider making one.
3. Slow adaption to change can result in serious amounts of wasted resources.
In 2013 alone, it is estimated that the U.S. spent $765 billion dollars in what is referred to as low-value health care. Before you vent your righteous indignation, think about how much we may be wasting in our nonprofits, churches and businesses in unproductive programs, unnecessary positions, and under-utilized buildings. What good could be done in health care with $765 billion dollars each year? A lot! But, what good could be done with the resources being wasted in all of our organizations? How could our missions be expanded? Lives be impacted? Salaries increased? Profitability grown?
4. Embarrassment can be an unhealthy but powerful motivator.
Fear of embarrassment can shape us more than we would like to acknowledge. When a leader or manager has to publicly say, “The way we have been doing it is not best,” after promoting that same way for years, it can be very embarrassing. This is true even when the new idea is much better than the old one. After all, we like the feeling of being the expert and we like others thinking that about us too. This can hinder our willingness to change course from the practices, advice or methods we have been dispensing for years even for something better. Humility requires us to think more of those we serve and what is in their best interest and less of ourselves.
5. While there may be some cause for cynicism, it comes with a cost.
Both leaders and doctors experience a constant barrage of new ideas and “expert advice” from things like conferences, books, blogs, and new research. This can result in a cynicism that prompts thoughts such as “here we go again.” At times, there is justification for some cynicism. In many cases regarding effective leading and managing, the Old Testament writer in the book of Ecclesiastes had it right: “There is nothing new under the sun.” But we as leaders can’t allow the cynicism that comes with life experience to result in an unwillingness to consider something that may be different or better. Or, at least may be worth a try.
Jay Desko is the Executive Director of The Center Consulting Group and serves on the Senior Leadership Team at Calvary Church in Souderton, PA. Jay brings experience in the areas of organizational assessment, leadership coaching, decision-making, and strategic questioning. Jay’s degrees include an M.Ed. in Instructional Systems Design from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Leadership from The Union Institute.