Return to Work: Psychological Barriers to Reorganization

As the rate of COVID-19 vaccination increases in Ontario, many companies are asking their employees to return to the office in person. As a result, the “return to work” planning has sparked many discussions about improving the workplace. For example, “Six Steps to Make Your Legal Workplace Equitable” published in May 2021. Despite the proliferation of helpful articles on improving our workplaces, we still face barriers to adoption.

In the book The Behaviorally Informed Organization, there is an excellent article about confronting barriers to change. In the article, “Gut Check: Why Organizations that Need to be Behaviourally Informed Resist it”, Shannon O’Malley and Kelly Peters outline barriers to adoption.

The two main groups of barriers to adoption are: (1) psychological barriers and (2) organizational barriers. Psychological barriers are “those behaviours that are predictably irrational behaviours and attitudes that impact individuals and groups”. Organizational barriers refer to “knowledge quality and acquisition and workplace culture”.

Examples of psychological barriers include:

  • status quo bias – preference for things to remain the same.
  • system justification theory – individuals are motivated to justify and maintain the current state.
  • group think – desire for harmony or conformity within the group that results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.
  • risk aversion – people prefer outcomes that are certain over uncertain.
  • ambiguity aversion – people tend to prefer to know all known risks. So for example, an organization considering to adopt a new methodology may be hesitant as the risks appear ambiguous.
  • sunk cost fallacy – continuing to pursue an endeavour or project that is not working because you have already invested time in it.
  • law of the instrument – over reliance on a tool because it is familiar, which can lead to ignoring alternative approaches.

Examples of organizational barriers include:

  • knowledge gap – people need to be aware of how to apply behavioural insights and behavioural science AND to recognize the value of applying these methods. I.e. failing to see the value in testing ideas or using just one tool for all jobs.
  • skills gap – failing to identify what skills they need, whom they need to hire, and if they need to engage a third party vendor.

By addressing the barriers to adopting change, we can hopefully move closer to making more inclusive workplaces.

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