Why We Resist Those Who Resist Change

Tuesday, January 9th, 2007

Why Hawks Win is a fascinating article in the current issue of Foreign Policy (Jan/Feb 2007). Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon suggest that leaders get all types of advice when there is tension and conflict, but that they have a natural bias toward listening only to those who give them “hawkish” advice over those who offer more “dovish” solutions.


People are prone to exaggerate their strengths. (After all, 80 percent of us rate our driving skills above average.) This makes us susceptible to people who give us information that bolsters our optimistic view of how well we will do during a conflict.

The authors looked at studies of bias (predictable errors) over the past 40 years. All of the studies showed that people favor the advice of hawks over doves. For example, we tend to over-exaggerate the bad intentions of our adversaries. Be overly sanguine when trouble starts. Are reluctant to make concessions. The authors conclude that these psychological biases increase the odds that conflict will start, and that it will be harder to end.

So what does this have to do with managing change in organizations? A lot.

When people resist us, there is a natural human reaction to think that they are wrong – and that we can beat them. Our biases cause us to make wrong estimates about how serious this resistance is, or how powerful the potential opposition is. In fact, we would rather keep in the game – roll the dice – even when the odds are against us, than take a lesser more-certain win.

When you couple these biases with a strong tendency for us to listen to people who reinforce how strong we are, how right we are, how evil or wrong the other side is, and dismiss the ideas of those who suggest that we should concede anything, you put major new initiatives at severe risk.

The cost of giving into these natural biases can be huge – massive projects fail, protracted strikes breakout, and so on.

There are no easy answers. But I do know that people who have the discipline to step back, look at situations through the eyes of others, and look at the situation from various angles –  and not just the knee-jerk first reaction – do better. I welcome your comments on what works.