Why change is so hard

Upton Sinclair was an American poet and political activist, who ran for the Governorship of California in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression.

His campaign slogan was ‘End poverty in California’ – EPIC, for short. His policies were radical, socialist solutions, based on collective work and shared food resources.

At the time, California was full of extremely poor people, with no jobs, no money and very little food – so Sinclair’s ideas generated plenty of interest and support.

But, when it came to the crunch, voters rejected him in favour of a more mainstream candidate with more familiar policies. They just couldn’t get their heads around the idea of such radical change.

As Sinclair himself put it, ‘it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’

I thought about that this morning, as I was picking my way through the tent village erected by Extinction Rebellion activists at the bottom of Trafalgar Square.

The ‘rebels’ I encountered were, broadly, likeable and articulate people.

Their demands seem reasonable: tell the truth about climate change and set up a citizens’ assembly to take the lead on what we should do about it.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with their cause. The science is compelling and the clock is ticking. Nobody really wants the planet to be irretrievably damaged, or their grandchildren to have to travel to Mars to create a habitable environment.

So why are we not all pitching tents alongside them?

I don’t have a good answer for that. But I suspect it’s a combination of self-interest (my salary depends on the status quo), fear of radical change (I don’t trust well-meaning hippies to come up with a better social system) and the nagging suspicion that none of it will make any difference until the people at the top of the world’s big economies adopt these ideas as their own.

Which is, of course, what stops change working in most businesses.

Even when confronted with the burningest of burning platforms, most of us will still wait for a signal from the people in charge before we jump.

In other words, the single most important factor in making change happen is credible leadership.

The voters of California decided that Upton Sinclair didn’t have it.

But, when Franklin Roosevelt adopted a lot of Sinclair’s ideas into his New Deal, he had the power and credibility of the Presidential office (as well as a Congressional majority) to back him up.

The question for Extinction Rebellion – and all of us – is: where will that credible leadership come from today?

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

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