In 1999, Patrick Struebi was hired by Glencore, one of the biggest commodities trading firms in the world. He traveled. He sat on boards. The number of deals he brokered opened his eyes to how the international markets hummed. But as his eyes opened, Struebi also saw the harm specific business practices were doing. It didn’t settle well. He packed up, ditched Switzerland for Mexico, and started the global social enterprise Fairtrasa to lift small-scale farmers out of poverty.
Struebi isn’t alone in making a big change to be happy — chef Julia Childs, designer Vera Wang, and comedian Joy Behar are just some of the professionals who have made massive pivots. Now, as the Great Resignation continues with life reevaluation at its core, companies around the world are adapting their practices and goals. For those facing similar shifts, take heart: Research shows that change really can bring joy, and there are effective strategies for getting teams to get behind a shift in course.
The Status Quo Experiment
In an experiment by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, subjects asked major life questions such as “Should I quit my job?” and then did a digital coin toss. People who got heads were supposed to take action, while those who received tails were supposed to stick with the status quo. Across 20,000 coin tosses, people who landed heads and changed things up in their lives reported being happier than they were before the experiment. This was true at both the two- and six-month follow-up points.
Levitt’s study is significant because in most cases, people make decisions under the influence of status quo bias. They are prone to stay in the comfortable boxes they know, rather than explore under risk of loss. The research suggests that this tendency could hold someone back from finding real satisfaction. If an employee has to make a decision with the potential outcomes appearing relatively equal, making the choice that represents something new might be the ideal path to fulfillment.
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The Mindset for Successful Change
Levitt’s study proves that the odds of being happy are good if you choose an option that includes a change. The conundrum to unpack, however, is how to get into the mental headspace necessary to take intentional steps toward the pivot. There are multiple strategies:
- Make it bite-sized. Just as breaking a large goal down into smaller steps can make the goal less overwhelming, breaking a change into smaller increments can make it seem less dramatic and stressful. This approach provides clear milestone points at which you can reevaluate progress, get feedback, and make any necessary tweaks to what you’re doing.
- Create a reasonable timeline. Many modern companies emphasize fast iterations as part of their competitive strategy. But trying to change too much too fast can create anxiety, not just from the pressure to produce quickly, but also from increased risk of making errors and the struggle to unlearn old processes. Give people time to ask questions, practice, make corrections, and get used to the idea of the new path.
- Participate. One of the biggest things that creates trust between people is the feeling of being in the same trenches. When someone lets others see them engage in the change they want, it sends a strong signal that they are serious about the new process, habit, or way of thinking, and that it is safe to try.
- Show results from similar cases. Even when companies promote and value innovation, it still can be scary to move forward with a change without some evidence that the team can succeed. Revealing what other companies or groups have experienced or how they navigated similar shifts can help people not feel alone in what they are trying to do.
- Provide choice and permit ownership. Empowering employees through the change process helps provide a sense of ownership and control over what is going on. For many workers, this has a stabilizing and calming influence. Allowing workers to make decisions for themselves can get them on board more quickly, as it can break down office politics.
- Use rewards. Every individual team will have different perks that appeal as rewards. But leaders who take the time to learn who people are can find the right motivational carrots to incentivize building the new habits necessary to support the larger change.
When in Doubt, Shake Things Up
Most people don’t jump into change with gusto, simply because leaving what has been done in the past can trigger self-doubt, fear of the unknown, and other psychological hurdles. There are also times when making a change doesn’t yield significant benefits. But in instances where a person or team faces an evenly weighted choice about what to do, leaning into what is different might mean greater long-term satisfaction. Whether the choice is taking a particular job or integrating a company-wide mandate, a pivot has the potential to support emotional wellbeing.