Psychological barriers that stop you from adapting

A rubber duck departing from a line

Right now, many individuals and organizations are reassessing their roles.

Some face uncomfortable changes. Others face big, daunting opportunities.

At Conversion Rate Experts, we find it easy to reposition our clients’ companies—and we’ve had some great successes from doing so.

But when it comes to repositioning our own company, we notice we feel a psychological resistance.

In this article, we describe some psychological phenomena that make people reluctant to adapt—even when it’s clearly the rational thing to do.

This is one of a series of articles trying to help in these turbulent times. We have published advice to help with remote working, living in lockdown, finding opportunities to be valuable, selling remotely, and quickly writing pages to increase sales.

Your ideal self (the image you want to project), and why it’s important

Your ideal self is your target identity. It’s the identity you’d like to have. It needs to have come from somewhere, so it’s likely to be a combination of the best parts of other peoples’ visible identities. People strive to be their ideal selves—and fall short.

“Don’t compare your behind-the-scenes blooper reel to everyone else’s showreel.”

You’ll probably find that your ideal self is expressed in the form of a narrative. A narrative can have many elements such as the following:

  • “I can tell people I’m a…
    • marketer
    • entrepreneur
    • parent
    • football fan
    • another identity
  • “I can tell people I’m…
    • writing a book
    • training for a marathon
    • raising money for a charity
    • another activity
  • “I can tell people I’ve been to…
    • Paris
    • Burning Man
    • ComicCon
    • Disneyland
    • another place
  • “I can tell people I own a…
    • Tesla
    • Peloton
    • Charles Dickens first edition
    • Snake
    • Apple MacBook Pro
    • another possession
  • “I can tell people I consume…
    • Guinness
    • renewable energy
    • organic food
    • Fair Trade coffee
    • another consumable

People often debate what keeps someone in their job or position—is it the money, the rewards, the working conditions, or the colleagues? The answer is often the narrative—the story they can tell people about why they work there.

The instinct to be able to “tell people” is interesting—because it’s often not obvious whom you’d be telling. In fact, in some cases, the people you’d be telling don’t even exist—because literally no one cares. Often, the only person you are “able to tell” is yourself—your inner critic.

If your inner critic is the only person who cares, does that mean you can easily change your ideal self? Unfortunately not—it’s surprisingly hard. The ideal self is anchored by a kind of psychological inertia. It’s not easy to switch from saying, “I’m an entrepreneur” to “I’m a…retired fishing enthusiast.” If you did so, it would feel like something had died—like your whole identity, values, value to the world, reasons for existing, etc., had disappeared—and your new identity and justifications for it would need to be created. It would feel like an identity crisis.

It’s worth being aware of that inertia. Sometimes it serves to help you—it can be an instinct that protects your personal brand—but at other times, when a change would be wise, your inner critic holds you back.

How you may be tied to your organization’s ideal self

When people drive cars, their brains effectively act as though they are controlling car-shaped bodies. We take it for granted that brains can carry out such a remapping—but if they couldn’t, people wouldn’t be able to drive.

Likewise, when you lead an organization—a company, department, team, community, or family—you map your self-image not only onto your ideal self but also onto the ideal self of your organization. You effectively adopt an “organization-shaped self.” When the organization is attacked, you perceive it as an attack on yourself, and you act accordingly.

The ability to have an “organization-shaped self” is useful. It allows you to tether your emotions to the fate of your organization. The organization feels like an embodiment of you. You can harness the full force of your emotions to steer the organization into opportunity and away from harm.

The “organization-shaped self” mapping can also be harmful. It can wear you out. After all, organizations are subject to greater jeopardy than most human bodies (or even cars) are. 20% of companies die in their first year. 30% die by their second. 50% by their fifth. 70% by their tenth. Tethering your emotions to such an entity can be hard to bear. Even the healthiest company has moments more traumatic than the scariest of horror movies.

But because your brain maps its identity onto the identity of your organization so effortlessly, so convincingly, the illusion can be hard to see through. A threat to your organization really does feel like a physical threat to your person. The illusion is so strong, so vivid, that the truth—that there’s no real physical threat—can feel theoretical.

At that point, it’s hard to remember that the organization’s ideal self is something you created.

How to reposition your organization (and what might hold you back)

Just as your ideal self can be changed, so can that of your organization. You don’t need to ask anyone for permission.

April Dunford’s book Obviously Awesome (which is definitely worth buying) argues that many organizations are positioned wrongly—that their positioning describes what the founders set out to create, rather than what they ended up creating (which often has different target customers and different use cases). Dunford describes a process to dramatically increase an organization’s sales by repositioning it to match how the market would best perceive its value. The steps in Obviously Awesome are simple, logical, and powerful:

  1. Understand the customers who love your product
  2. Form a positioning team
  3. Align your positioning vocabulary and let go of your positioning baggage
  4. List your true competitive alternatives
  5. Isolate your unique attributes or features
  6. Map the attributes to value “themes”
  7. Determine who cares a lot
  8. Find a market frame of reference that puts your strengths at the center and determine how to position it
  9. Layer on a trend (but be careful)
  10. Capture your positioning so it can be shared

Once you have finished the process, many factors may still hold you back, including

  • Perceived risk
  • Perceived effort, both cognitive and physical
  • How the plans are communicated
  • Company politics and the incentives for each person in the organization

However, a factor that’s often ignored is the psychological inertia restraining you from changing your organization’s ideal self. The same forces that would restrain you from switching from “entrepreneur” to “retired fishing enthusiast” may also restrain you from redefining your organization. Even if it’s clearly rational to say, “Mine’s not an ABC organization anymore—it’s an XYZ organization,” your psychology may still hold you back. It’s difficult emotionally.

You might find it useful to reflect on the ideal selves of you and your organization:

  • When were they created?
  • From where did they come?
  • What has changed since then?
  • If you were to create them today, based on the current reality, would they be different?

The answers may identify opportunities for breakthroughs.

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