Managing the Challenges of Change: Look at Habits and Choices, Darden Expert Says

June 1, 2007 -- At the University of Virginia, change is jostling tradition and has become an aspect of daily life. Anyone who works at U.Va. has undoubtedly noticed the profusion of changes — in new construction and temporary structures, in top leaders coming and going, and in new academic programs getting under way.

When the General Faculty Council decided to hold its first professional development seminar, change seemed like an appropriate topic that would “cut across almost every diverse group that makes up the general faculty,” said Darden director Barbara Millar, who chairs the GFC communications committee.

Millar, who runs the Darden School’s MBA for Executives program, knew just the man to talk about change — someone who could offer good advice, sprinkled with gentle humor: Alexander B. “Alec” Horniman, a Darden business professor who specializes in individual and organizational change, leadership and business ethics.

The Killgallon Ohio Art Professor of Business Administration, Horniman is also a senior fellow in the school’s Olsson Center for Applied Ethics, for which he served as founding director when it was established nearly 40 years ago.

“Change is central to everything we’re about,” Horniman said. We humans can’t grow up and continue growing unless we change, yet, according to Horniman, many of us fear and resist change, and don’t want to go outside our comfort zones.

When people get signals that they are supposed to change or that change is afoot, they bump into their habits — habits that might coalesce around their beliefs that things are supposed to be a certain way, said Horniman. He points out that about 90 percent of our behavior is driven by habit — as are our beliefs and feelings. If we don’t understand the power of habits, he said, they make choices for us.

To experience change is to experience a kind of loss, Horniman said. To feel confused, sad or angry is a human reaction. People might even react as if going through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.

Horniman said this process of going through loss or change usually takes two to five years. Interestingly, it takes about the same amount of time for the creative process, especially to carry out change at the organizational level, he said. The University will have to go through the process of change over time, he added.

Horniman explained that learning can be described as the acquisition of categories. These categories can contain prejudices, as well as other beliefs. When people learn, they can change their categories by broadening, deepening or dropping beliefs or ideas, and by adding new ones. And thus, they change again.

“If you don’t have a choice, hopefulness is hard to come by, Horniman said. He reminded managers, ”people are more willing to change if they are involved in making choices.”

“People don’t always believe this, but they can always choose their attitude,” he said. To help people think through those choices, Horniman offered four questions to help individuals meet the challenges of change:

• What is the most significant change you made in the past year?
• What about you must remain the same – rock solid – to facilitate change?
• What is the unique value you add to your organization?
• What changes must you make in the coming year if you are to continue to develop the potential you represent?

Some attending the seminar were managers, leading changes in their units; some were U.Va. employees going through changes in the workplace. On evaluation forms gathered afterwards, attendees — regardless of their U.Va. jobs — expressed thanks for Horniman’s advice.

“This was a good professional development activity for several reasons,” one person wrote. “It was a topic relevant to almost everyone across the University, it drew upon faculty expertise at U.Va., and it provided the opportunity for faculty from across the University to get together with the potential of becoming familiar with one another.”

“The University is undergoing a period of great change,” another person wrote. “The information Alec Horniman shared helped put many of the feelings and events we are experiencing in perspective.”

The event filled to capacity soon after the notice about it was distributed, with some 70 people attending and more than two dozen turned away. The General Faculty Council solicited other ideas for future seminars and will likely offer other events in the coming year.