By Gaylon Grippin, Public Safety Consultant and Colorado State Patrol Captain (retired)
Before I explain what this blog topic is, I want to make a prediction. Almost everyone who has spent any time in government service – regardless of what it is – has heard these words, "We've been doing it this way for XXX years." In some cases, these words were followed by some iteration of "When I want your opinion, I'll give it to you." At least that was my experience.
This combination of words has stopped many a young hard-charging buck more quickly than a shot to the heart. The message becomes very clear – Change isn't welcome. We work very hard to avoid it, sometimes running in fear of it.
In fact, when I started working for the Colorado State Patrol in 1993, my first sergeant told me that I had joined an agency that was celebrating 58 years of tradition unimpeded by progress. In one way, he was joking, but in far too many, he really wasn't. The tradition may very well have been to avoid change.
This is where the title of this blog comes from. I recently saw a quote on social media that said, "If you don't like where you are, move. You are not a tree." I enjoyed this quote, as simplistic as it is. If we can overcome the obstacles that are stopping us, we can change. This is true in our personal lives and in our professional arenas as well.
So, if change is possible, why is it so hard?
There are many reasons that change is very difficult. Social scientists have identified a bias that plays a key role in the process of change. It's called anchoring bias. This bias affects so many things about our lives that it's worth a discussion by itself.
Anchoring bias is our tendency to grab hold of something and hold onto it, sometimes for too long. To demonstrate it with a personal example, when my children were young, a teenage band released an album with songs like Mamma Mia and Dancing Queen. My children, influenced by the talking box, thought these songs were absolutely amazing. I, of course, having been a child in the 1970's knew that they were remakes from the ABBA catalog. I had a preference for the originals and found the remakes to be ridiculous and silly.
Why did I feel this way? Anchoring bias. I had latched onto the original version and was less than willing to consider an alternative to it. I had an automatic wall placed in front of the change that was going to be very difficult to get over. When you hear the word tradition, this is very likely what that word means – we have become anchored to our traditions.
If you think back to the comment my first sergeant made to me regarding the tradition of my agency, it's entirely likely that his comment established an anchor for me to resist change. And I did. For many years, one of my own favorite quotes was that "If I wanted to make change, I would have taken a job as a cashier." This is how pervasive anchoring bias is in our lives. It affects everything from where we shop, what we buy, who we like and almost every other aspect of our lives, so it's also heavily involved in our workplaces.
Public safety agencies, in particular, strive to maintain the status quo. That's the very definition of the job. Keep the status quo and keep everyone in line. The job is to resist change and we go out of our way to make sure that people coming in to the profession follow in the same footsteps, indoctrinating them, training and molding them and forming them into replacement versions of the ones that came before them. It's little wonder, then, that we have to struggle to make change happen when we are so firmly and intentionally anchored to the ways of the past.
This status quo that we protect becomes our norm and our comfort zone. None of us are comfortable leaving it. Author and Life Coach Tony Robbins has said that "Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change." In other words, it takes a very strong and often threatening stimulus to force us to step out of the norm that we live in. Think of it like a person that is extremely agoraphobic. It will require a significant push to get them out of the comfort zone of their house – like, say a fire. Once the house is burning down, the pain of staying becomes greater than the pain of leaving, to paraphrase Tony Robbins. It takes a lot to give up your anchor point.
Risk Aversion or Fear of Risk
Fear of failure or risk is another cause. We are definitely creatures of habit. When we see someone who regularly takes risks and seems to enjoy it, most of us think there is something wrong with them. We usually do not enjoy the risk. We fear the results of doing something wrong and what it may cost us in terms of reputation, advantage or security. There's a reason that people like Elon Musk stand out in our minds. They have a reduced aversion to risk, leading them to the outcomes that they achieved.
Most of us are more than content to not have our names in lights and to have our histories relegated to obscurity. This is not always because of an aversion to risk, but that can be a major driving force. Again, the need for change has not outweighed the discomfort of staying the same.
Most of us have seen a situation like this. It doesn’t even have to be in a work setting. Take the story of Kitty Genovese who was murdered in 1964 in Queens, New York. Although the number of witnesses is widely disputed, there were those who heard her screams for help and possibly witnessed part of the attack, yet did nothing to stop it – including calling the police. One witness even called a friend to determine what his course of action should be.
While called the bystander effect, it has a fear of risk at its roots. Fear of acting outside the norms, fear of placing one’s own self at risk or fear of humiliation. In my own career, this could have been something as simple as proposing a change and risking the wrath of the supervisor approached.
If we’re not willing to step up to the plate and work to save another’s life, how much less willing are we to push for a change in our workplaces? It can take a brave individual and an overwhelming need to clear these landmines in our path. Just keep your head down and avoid fire is the mantra that drives many situations in our lives. Somebody else will fix it, right?
It’s Good Enough
Maybe you’ve heard the phrase Good is the Enemy of Great. All of us have heard, “Good enough for government work”, unfortunately. “It’s Good Enough” is the exact meaning of that phrase. Why are we changing this? It works fine already. Or maybe, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
There are times in our lives when the changemakers have a vision that we just can’t see, whether willingly or because it’s too far in front of us. I know that I resisted some of these changes over the years. What are we doing this for? Tell me why. Sell it to me. Give me a big reason to move beyond where we are, which is good enough.
Occasionally, I went through a change and saw a very positive outcome. Naturally, there were times that we seemed to be moving backwards, but regardless, things did work out for the best now and again. In every case, regardless of the outcome, there had to be a significant investment of energy to overcome the inertia that keeps all people and organizations immobile occasionally. Having a meaningful reason to invest that energy will be essential to overcoming this issue.
Of the many causes available, the last that we will discuss here is the opposition we see in our minds between the logical mind and the intuitive mind, or the emotional vs. the rational.
A Divided Mind
All of us suffer from a divided mind. We have two ways of processing information. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow identified these as a conscious mind and an automatic mind. You could also call these by other names. The rational or logical mind is the one that tells you swimsuit season is coming and you need to prepare. This is the one that Kahneman calls the conscious. The emotional or intuitive mind is the one that is screaming for the Big Mac and shake. This is Kahneman’s automatic mind.
One of the key points in Kahneman’s book is that our brain is lazy. When we can put it into automatic mode and save on thought, we will do so. Kind of like putting your Tesla in self-driving mode, let autopilot guide me through this issue. Thinking requires energy and if we can avoid using that energy, we will. How does this affect change?
Making changes requires thought – intentional thought, hopefully, not decisions based on emotion. This requires the brain to be in the conscious, or logical or rational mind, whichever you may want to call it. Making decisions based on emotion or in automatic mode is the best way to produce undesirable results. These are the impulse decisions that cause us to buy the Ginsu knives we saw advertised on late night television or that new, surprise tattoo we’re sporting after a night on the town with the boys.
In the case of change, relying too heavily on emotion can cause us to avoid the situation all together. If it’s too difficult going down this road of change, put yourself on a different course – one that avoids it. We resist the chance to think about a change logically – what's the best decision, what are the risks, what can I gain, what should I do – in favor of the quick, emotional decision to just walk away. Understanding your thought processes will help to make better decisions that affect change.
How Do We Accomplish Change, Then?
Change is necessary
When you read the heading in blue that says change is necessary, many of you got a sinking feeling in your stomach. Maybe you got angry. Probably you had an immediate mental image of a time that a change was forced on you and it seemed to be unnecessary. All of these are valid feelings. Because not all changes are necessary, but change itself should not be a four-letter word.
There are many examples of this. When I started in law enforcement, I carried a wheel gun. For some of the youngsters out there, this may be confusing. No, it’s not a cannon mounted on a cart – I didn’t start that long ago. It simply means I had a handgun which is called a revolver. It had six shots and I carried two speed loaders on my belt with an additional 12 rounds. 18 shots in total.
If you are unfamiliar with weapons and policing, it may not seem immediately clear why this required a change. The criminals that we deal with are often well armed and with weapons that rapidly carry and fire more than 18 rounds. To stay with the technology that won the West is not a bright decision.
Still not convinced? OK, try this one. Go to your storage and pull out an 8 mm family movie you have. How about an 8 track? Cassette tape? Laser Disc? Betamax? VHS? See where I’m going? Changes come to all of us and many, many times, they bring improvements. To automatically resist change is to deny the possibility of something better happening.
In all of the reasons listed above regarding why we resist change, there are solutions available. The simplest involves meaningful thought. Using rational thought helps to avoid the two types of thought processes discussed by Daniel Kahneman. Thinking logically about a proposed change can help us to move beyond the anchor that we might have to a tradition or previous way of doing things.
It can also help us to enumerate what the cost vs. the benefits might be for a change being discussed. Is the investment of additional energy going to show a gain beyond where we currently are? What is the payoff? Finally, it helps to create a new anchor in our minds that helps us to resist emotional attachments, or even fear of the risks already discussed. The simplest way to argue against emotion is always with logic. Sometimes we need to do that internally.
What does change have to do with NueGov for Public Safety?
Good question. I’m glad I asked. It may be difficult to read through this blog and make a connection with the services that NueGov offers. Speaking from experience, there were times in my career that resisting change led to catastrophic failure. Change can lead to amazing outcomes, but only after the change is accomplished. Overcoming that resistance, anchoring and inertia will be a heavy lift many times.
Had I been able to implement NueGov while still on-the-job in policing, I could have eliminated many of the risks that I carried, both personally and professionally – trying to make sure that my officers were equipped, trained and ready to do their jobs while still tracking department assets, fleet and facilities in a fiscally responsible manner.
You may not be your department’s chief decision maker, but you may be the champion that identifies a problem and then locates a solution that resolves the risk. If you are reading this right now and that describes you, I encourage you to take action. You may have to pass the ball at some point, but if you can at least get it moving down the court, you are that much closer to winning. Sometimes, bottom-up leadership makes a huge difference.
If you are in a position and find yourself struggling with asset, personnel, facility, fleet or weapon management, NueGov may well be the solution that you’ve been looking for. Reach out to us today to get more info on how we can help you to make the changes that will get you to where you need to be.
Gaylon retired as a Captain from the Colorado State Patrol in 2020 after 30 years in the profession. He worked throughout the State of Colorado in all functions of patrol. He has his Master of Science in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Administration, with a specialization in Organizational Leadership. He now works as a public safety consultant with NueGOV.