‘Can’t Means Won’t Try’ – The Challenge of Being Challenged

Originally posted on February 9, 2015 @ 6:01 PM

‘Can’t Means Won’t Try’ – The Challenge of Being Challenged

Why is change easy for children and often so difficult for adults in the work environment?  Are workers just being difficult, or is there more to it than that?  It seems that there are challenges to being challenged.

I’m feeling inspired by a conversation I had recently with my 10 year old grandson.  He is using words like maximise and minimise in context.  He is talking about his responsibilities towards the kids who are younger than himself.  And he is talking about the issue of addiction as he works through a self imposed limitation of hours (encouraged by Mum and Dad) spent on a computer game that was at one time his total, almost obsessive, focus of conversation and leisure time.

I’m inspired by his answer, when he was asked how he felt to be back at school and starting year 5, and he said ‘… great, I’m doing some year 6 work and I’m finding it really challenging.’  It turns out that he is in a mixed year 5 – 6 class and has been introduced to the concept of “long division” among other new stuff.

I’m inspired by the fact that he is excited about being challenged.  We chatted about how through accepting challenges, we learn and how learning is fun, and how as we learn we grow.  A bit later that day he was attempting to do something and didn’t get it quite right.  When he said ‘I can’t do it’ I told him that my Dad (his Big Grampy) had always said to me that ‘can’t means won’t try’.  When he argued that he did try, we then talked about what Big Grampy might have meant by ‘can’t means won’t try’.  We started to look at alternatives to the method he was attempting and then when he did come up with a solution, he admitted that he ‘… just didn’t think before’.

I reflected on what this admission would mean in the workplace.  History would indicate that when workers are involved in an incident and they admit to “not thinking” they are immediately thought of as being dumb, or not having common sense, or being accident prone, or being a danger to those around them.  They are a problem which has to be fixed.  They are usually then subjected to a process of blame, re-training and extra supervision.  Systems are revised and new ones are built and the process starts over again; only to be repeated when the next person proves their humanity and makes a mistake because in their own minds they were “not thinking”.

The thing is, when I checked in with my little year 5 mate about this “non-thinking” thing, and we explored the fact that he lacks knowledge, experience and the capacity to be able to think of everything, he was comfortable.  He wasn’t really bothered by the idea of him not knowing stuff.  Importantly, he was comfortable that there were things that he didn’t know.  And what was surprising, he was comfortable that there were things that he didn’t yet know about that he didn’t know.  What wasn’t surprising was that he just saw that as another challenge; after all before this year he didn’t know about long division and didn’t know that he didn’t know it.  The thought of another challenge excited him.

The puzzling thing is that a 10 year old was comfortable in this void of experience and expertise yet adults often can’t seem to think like this.  Why is it different for adults?  Why does it seem that adults have to be experts?  Why is it that as adults the bit of knowledge on a subject that we have is the bit that is important to us and that we hang onto, come what may?  Why is it that whenever adults are confronted by new ideas, which challenge their historical perceptions, knowledge, capability or expertise they often respond to the challenge by simply putting up the shutters?  Why is change so very difficult for some?

It seems that it is automatic to deny anything that does not fit with our experience, sometimes even to the extent of denying proven science; smoking and cancer, increased greenhouse gasses and global warming, increased cholesterol and heart disease…

Well it appears that there is more to it than that.

Much of the problem may come not so much from learning as it does from un-learning.  In order to learn a completely new idea that challenges our current thinking, we often have to un-learn what we currently believe, and open the way for the new idea.  Schein (2010, pp. 303-304) presents us with a number of reasons which help to explain this reluctance, or resistance to change including:

  • the fear of loss of power, position or status (during the change to, or in the new regime);
  • the fear of temporary incompetence (while in the limbo between un-learning and learning);
  • the fear of punishment for incompetence (as we develop the new competence);
  • the fear of loss of personal identity (under a new regime which may come from the implementation of the new idea);
  • the fear of loss of group identity (if the new regime results in new structures)

These fears can build in people when they anticipate, consciously and unconsciously, the potential difficulties which may accompany having to unlearn something and in fact it can become a disruptive anxiety, referred to by Schein (2010, pp. 300-303) as the ‘learning anxiety’.

Learning anxiety can be likened to cognitive dissonance, a term first coined by Leon Festinger in 1957.  He describes cognitive dissonance as ‘… the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time …’ (Weick, 1995, pp. 11-13).  Dissonance is a block to learning and change in that:

… when inconsistency (dissonance) is experienced, individuals tend to become psychologically uncomfortable and are motivated to attempt to reduce this dissonance, as well as actively avoiding situations and information which are likely to increase it. (Festinger, 1957, Wikipedia)

There is an opposing force to ‘learning anxiety’ which comes from the human reaction of not wanting to be disadvantaged and which Schein refers to as ‘survival anxiety’ (2010, p. 305).  Survival anxiety is based on, again a very human reaction, where we think that if we don’t change we will miss out on something of value, or something bad will happen either to us, our group or organisation.  The thing with these two human forces is that: ‘As long as learning anxiety remains stronger than survival anxiety, we will resist change and avoid learning.’ (Schein, 2013, p. 100).

So what does all of this mean?  An obvious answer is to increase the survival anxiety until it overcomes the learning anxiety.  But we are warned by Schein (2010, p. 305) that if we increase survival anxiety, we increase our levels of tension, we increase our defensiveness and we increase our reluctance to engage in the learning process.  He suggests that the key is twofold; we need to ensure that survival anxiety is greater than learning anxiety while at the same time ensuring that we reduce learning anxiety.

The challenge for us all as we attempt to introduce new ideas is to help people see the advantage in adopting the new idea and to reduce the learning anxiety.  This is not easy as we have to overcome the suspicions of people that the data that is presented to them (indicating the need to change) is valid and that the need to change is real.  People have to take ownership of the reason for the need to change and avoid projecting the blame onto other people, groups or departments, and they have to accept that the change will be in their best interest.

This means employing a process that:

  • sets a real and powerful vision;
  • accepts the reality of targeted formal training, and the costs that go with that;
  • actively involves the people who are affected by the change in the change process;
  • supports ongoing understanding through informal on-the-job skill development and mentoring;
  • allows people the time to practice and develop their expertise perhaps under the eyes of experienced coaches;
  • promotes positive role models and on-the-job champions;
  • encourages feedback and improvement;
  • is based on systems and structures which are subordinate to and supportive of the new situation.

It seems that people’s seeming unwillingness to change is not just based on them being “stuck in the mud”.  There are some very real fears that are either consciously or unconsciously held by people, which may be holding them back from making a change.  One of these fears is dependent on our willingness and capacity to un-learn often some deeply help beliefs and practices.  And that un-learning and moving to the unknown is a challenge that for some will require concentrated effort.

Just imagine if our year fives didn’t rise to the challenges of the unknown.  Or better still, just imagine if we could all be excited again, as the year fives are, by the challenges of the unknown.


Festinger, L., (1957)  Definition of Cognitive Dissonance, Wikipedia, viewed 29th November 2014, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance>

Schein, E. H., (2010)  Organizational Culture and Leadership 4th ed., Jossey-Bass, San Fransisco, California, USA.

Schein, E. H., (2013)  Humble Inquiry, The Gentle Art Of Asking Instead of Telling, Berrett-Koehler, San Fransisco, California, USA.

Weick, K. E., (1995)  Sensemaking in Organizations, Sage, California, USA.

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