Tyranny of The Known™: The Psychology of Resistance

Tyranny of The Known™: The Psychology of Resistance

(part 2 in the Tyranny of the Known™ series)

by Theo Theodosiou

Thought Leadership


In the ever-evolving landscape of business, change is the only constant. Yet, the paradox of success often leaves organizations clinging to what they know, resisting the very innovation that could propel them to new heights. In this second of three articles investigating the concept of the “tyranny of the known,” we’ll delve into the psychology behind this resistance, exploring why we fear the new and how to overcome this barrier.

The Known as a Survival Mechanism
The known is comfortable, familiar, and reassuring. It’s the tried-and-true methods that have brought success in the past. There’s a lot of effort and ingenuity going into squeezing a little more light out of the profitable strategies of the present. This encapsulates the essence of why organizations, and the people within them, often stick to what they know. The known is not just a comfort zone; it’s a survival mechanism. It’s this mechanism that reinforces the “tyranny of the known” as a force that keeps us grounded yet can also hold us back.

The psychology behind this is simple: the known is less risky. It’s the path of least resistance, where the outcomes are predictable, and the variables are more controlled. But the comfort comes at a cost. Until you can see the tyranny of the known, appreciate it, and respect it, you are at its mercy. The known is a double-edged sword. While it provides a sense of security, it can also lead to stagnation and missed opportunities for growth, innovation, and even transformation — all of which are necessary for long-term, sustainable success.

The CEO’s Dilemma
As a CEO, your bind is unique. On one hand, you’re the steward of the organization’s existing assets and capabilities — the known. On the other hand, you’re also the visionary who leads the company into uncharted territories — the unknown. The dual role creates a psychological tension that can be difficult to resolve.

When you’re at the helm, you have a responsibility for everything that is and everything that should be. The known is your immediate reality; it’s what pays the bills, satisfies stakeholders in the short term, and provides a sense of stability. But, defined by it, you’re merely a caretaker. You’re maintaining the status quo, and that’s a precarious place to be in a world that’s changing at an unprecedented pace.

The temptation is always there, especially in the first meeting with a new client or during a quarterly review, to find the first landing spot of an issue and tell people what they can do about it. It’s a trap that’s easy to fall into because it gives the illusion of leadership and decisiveness. But true leadership often involves resisting the urge to provide immediate solutions, choosing instead to listen, to gather the “dots” from various sources without judgment, and to take the time to connect them in innovative ways.

The challenge is to respect the known without being confined by it. It’s about recognizing its value, rewarding those who are responsible for it, but also making room for the new. If you’re too comfortable with everyone who surrounds you, if everyone is nodding in agreement all the time, you’re missing an essential opportunity. Dynamic tension in your leadership team is not just healthy; it’s necessary. It’s in that mix of caution and courage, detail-orientation, and big-picture thinking, that you find the path to true innovation and long-term success.

The Board’s Role in Navigating the Known and Unknown
The board of directors plays a pivotal role in this psychological dance between the known and the unknown. A board that is singularly focused on their fiduciary role and the metrics of the present, can be a significant barrier to innovation. Such a board will likely celebrate a “good year,” not realizing that a good year can be more dangerous than a bad one. A good year lulls you into a false sense of security, making you think that what you’re doing is sustainable in the long run.

The reality is a good year often means you’re merely milking the brave decisions of days past. It’s a sign that you’re stuck in the comfort zone of the known. The board’s role, therefore, is not just to oversee the present but to challenge the organization to prepare for the future. They should be asking questions that prompt long-term thinking: “Where will your success five years from now come from?” “Is this the time for innovation?” “Is this time for transformation?” “What investments need to be made to prepare for the future?”

The board needs to be a mixture of personalities and expertise that can challenge each other and the CEO. If the board is too homogeneous, if it’s too comfortable, then it’s not serving its role effectively. It’s not just about having different skill sets but also about having different perspectives on risk, change, and the future. The board should be a source of dynamic tension, pushing the organization to move beyond its comfort zone while also providing the governance structures that ensure responsible risk-taking.

In essence, the board’s responsibility is to ensure that the organization doesn’t become a prisoner to its own success. They need to help navigate the tension between leveraging what works today and exploring what might work tomorrow, between capitalizing on existing competencies and developing new ones. This is how an organization evolves into the next manifestation of its existence and ultimate success.

Culture as a Barrier to Embracing the New
Culture is often the invisible hand that either propels us forward or holds us back. When it comes to the psychology of resistance, culture can be a formidable barrier. A culture that is steeped in tradition, that rewards conformity and punishes deviation, is a culture that will struggle to adapt to change. It’s not just about having kind people; it’s about embedding kindness, openness, and a willingness to change into the very fabric of the organization.

In such environments, new ideas are often met with skepticism or outright resistance. The known becomes a comfort zone not just for individuals but for the entire organization. It’s embedded in the way you recognize people, in the way you select people, and in the way your clients and customers experience you. Until these elements are locked into the culture, any attempt to introduce the new will be temporal and superficial.

The challenge, then, is to move from a culture of comfort to a culture of courage. A culture that not only tolerates but celebrates dissenting opinions and disruptive ideas. A culture that understands the value of dynamic tension, where people appreciate each other as human beings and can vigorously challenge and debate each other when it comes to ideas, knowing that it’s all in the service of creating something better.

The key to this transformation is leadership. Leaders set the tone, and their behavior serves as a model for the rest of the organization. If leaders are open to new ideas, if they’re willing to question the status quo and take calculated risks, then that attitude will trickle down through the organization. But if leaders are risk-averse, if they’re stuck in their ways and unwilling to adapt, then the culture will reflect that, and the organization will be doomed to stagnate.

Fear Factor: The Psychology Behind Resisting the New
The human mind is wired to seek comfort and familiarity. It’s a survival mechanism that has served us well for millennia. But in today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, this instinct can be more of a hindrance than a help. The fear of the unknown is a powerful deterrent, often more intimidating than any actual risks involved in embracing new strategies or technologies.

When we talk about fear, we’re not just talking about a vague sense of unease. We’re talking about a deeply ingrained psychological response that can manifest in various ways within an organization. For instance, employees may become disengaged or resistant to change, middle management might become overly cautious and risk-averse, and even the board may push back against innovative but unproven strategies.

The fear factor is not to be underestimated. It’s not just an individual issue; it’s a collective one. And it’s not just about avoiding risk; it’s about avoiding the discomfort that comes with stepping into the unknown. This fear can be paralyzing, and it can stifle innovation and growth.

The irony is that by not evolving, by not taking calculated risks, organizations are putting themselves in a more precarious position in the long run. In a world where the only constant is change, standing still is the riskiest move of all.

So, how do we overcome this psychological barrier? The first step is acknowledging it. Once we recognize the role that fear plays in our decision-making processes, we can begin to address it head-on. We can start asking the hard questions that often go unasked: What are we afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen? And what opportunities might we be missing out on by letting fear dictate our actions?

By confronting these questions, we can begin to shift our mindset from one of avoidance to one of opportunity. We can start to see the unknown not as a threat, but as a space full of potential, waiting to be explored.

Navigating Beyond the Fear: Ways to Overcome
Overcoming the psychological resistance to the new is multi-faceted in its approach. It involves leadership, governance, and culture. Here are ways that it can actively manifest:

  1. Visionary Leadership: The CEO must be willing to take calculated risks and be the agitator for change. They should surround themselves with a dynamic team that challenges the status quo, fostering a culture of innovation.
  2. Board Alignment: The board should not just be a fiduciary in orientation but should enable risk-taking. A board that is too comfortable with the status quo can be a significant barrier to the evolution and transformation of an organization.
  3. Cultural Engagement: Culture is the lived version of your values. For any change to be effective, it must be embedded in the culture of the organization. This requires intentionality and discipline by leadership in framing and reinforcing the ideal behaviors and culture.
  4. Decision Framing: Use a framework for decision-making that allows for the evaluation of both the known and the new. This could be a formal methodology or an informal set of criteria, but it should be consistent and transparent.
  5. Dynamic Tension: Create teams that have a mix of orientations—some members who are detail-oriented and cautious, and others who are big-picture thinkers willing to take risks. This dynamic tension can help in making balanced decisions.

Address these areas of your organization to better navigate the tension between the known and the new. It will set the stage for sustainable growth and long-term success.

The psychology of resistance to the new is a complex interplay of comfort zones, leadership dilemmas, board governance, and organizational culture. It’s a challenge that requires not just awareness but actionable strategies to overcome. As we’ve explored, the fear of the new is often rooted in the comfort of the known, and this comfort can be a significant barrier to innovation and growth.

Leaders, especially CEOs, have a pivotal role in setting the tone for embracing the new. They must navigate the delicate balance of respecting the known while not being defined by it. Boards, too, have a responsibility to ensure that they are not just fiduciaries of the known but enablers of the new. Culture can either be a barrier or a catalyst, and it’s up to the organization to embed values that encourage openness to change.

The fear factor is real, but it’s not insurmountable. With the right approaches, organizations can create a culture that not only acknowledges the fear but actively works to overcome it. The path to greatness lies in this delicate balance of harnessing the known while inviting the new, a journey that requires courage, strategy, and above all, a willingness to change, grow, and even transform.

In the end, the greatest risk is not in embracing the new but in becoming subjugated by the known. It may feel safe, but it’s the new that holds the key to innovation, transformation, and long-term success.