Creative Leadership

Why Older Leaders Fight Change

Fascinating new research provides more insight into why efforts at changing organizations usually meets with resistance from older leaders and employees. Up to now, most have attributed the resistance to the fact that older employees have invested in past ideas and aren’t interested in new ones. But the Wall Street Journal reports a new finding was discovered in an effort to track the progress of children who grow up too fast. Here’s what they found:

“In an experiment published in 2011 in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Dr. Wilbrecht and a colleague discovered that young mice learn more flexibly than older ones. The researchers hid food at one of four locations in a pile of shavings, with each location indicated by a different smell. The mice quickly learned that the food was at the spot that smelled, say, like thyme rather than cloves, and they dug in the shavings to find their meal. The experimenters then reversed the scents: Now the clove-scented location was the correct one.

To solve this problem the mice had to explore a new possibility: They had to dig at the place with the other smell, just for the heck of it, without knowing whether they would find anything. Young mice were good at this kind of exploratory, flexible “reversal learning.”

But at a distinct point, just as they went from being juveniles to adults, they got worse at solving the problem. Instead, they just kept digging at the spot where they had found the food before. The experiment fit with earlier studies: Like mice, both young rats and young children explore less as they become adults.”

The line “They just kept digging at the spot where they had found the food before” is what hit me.  After all, how many meetings have you attended where – for many certain employees – the answer to every problem is to continue doing what they’ve always done?  So it’s not always pride, over-confidence, or resistance other leaders.  It may be DNA.  It’s built into our systems. Sadly, this simply confirms what many of us believe, that as we grow older, we tend to rely on past experience to get us through new challenges.

But that doesn’t work. The study called it “reversal learning,” and it describes how we should always be ready to change gears, look at the problem in new directions, and be open to alternatives. Otherwise, we sit on our laurels, remind ourselves of how great we used to be, and like the mice in the study, slowly starve to death.

What are you doing to keep the creative juices flowing as you get older?

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  1. You have to wonder if older leaders have grown weary of fads or change for the sake of change. Granted, if like the old mice their lack of innovation resulted in starvation, then new methods should be embraced immediately. I dive deep into innovation personally, but there are laggards who cling to tradition in every group.

    1. Really great point Allen. The truth is, most “change initiatives” are handled very poorly, so there’s no question that many just get tired and weary of doing it one more time. Creating change is serious business, because if not done well, it can sour a team for many years to come. Never a good thing. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  2. Given the discovery in neuroscience about the neuroplasticity of the brain, it is indeed possible to continue to be a life-long learner. Some experts claim DNA isn’t as much a factor as others. Sadly, we get comfortable with our own status quo, and our comfort zones become a place where we embrace the predictable as preferred to the “possible”. There are key questions we need to continue to ask ourselves if we are to maintain creativity and innovation at any age. Robert Quinn does a masterful job of describing the “Fundamental State Of Leadership” that every leader needs to grasp and apply when it comes to accessing that state.

  3. Have you read “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson? It’s a great parable of this phenomenon, must-read for anyone facing change.

  4. When I sent this to my friend Rob Hoskins, leader of OneHope, he sent me this note:

    Good post Phil. Peter Drucker nailed this when he pinpointed the need for leaders to be social ecologists. Many times older leaders sincerely don’t see the shifts taking place. Good leaders double as social ecologists. They take a hard look at society and ask:
    · What paradigm changes have taken place recently?
    · What changes no longer fit what everybody knows?
    · Is there evidence that this is a change and not just a fad?
    · If this change is relevant and meaningful, what opportunities does it offer?

  5. Never stop learning, reading and gaining new skills. Exercise that ‘muscle’ called a brain! I have learned more and changed more once I hit 50 than in all my previous years! I see learning something new as a challenge that I must conquer. Status quo is boring. Being around people with attitudes of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is like standing in a stagnant swamp….it just stinks. 😉 Embrace change!

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