What do HR, handwashing and rejecting new ideas have in common?

by Michael Haberman on November 11, 2013 · 1 comment


At one time doctors washing their hands was a new idea that was universally rejected. Dr. Semmelweis was universally rejected when he suggested it.

At one time doctors washing their hands was a new idea that was universally rejected. Dr. Semmelweis was universally rejected when he suggested it.

All of us have had a new idea rejected. How many times has someone said to you “We have always done it that way?” Or “I like it just the way it is!” In fact I bet you have used these lines, or something similar, yourself. Did you know that there is a name for this phenomenon of rejecting something just because it is new?

Based on a doctor’s observation

According to Esther Inglis-Arkell, at iO9, rejecting something new, just because it is new, is called the Semmelweis Reflex. It is kind of like the gag reflex only this time it is the idea of something being new that sticks in your craw.

Ignaz Semmelweis was a doctor, a very smart and observant doctor. Unfortunately he was smart and observant at a time when it was not appreciated. Dr. Semmelweis noticed something that we take for granted today. He observed other doctors going from treating  very sick or dying people to delivering babies WITHOUT EVER WASHING THEIR HANDS. At that time NO ONE washed their hands. The hands that had just removed a diseased spleen were now delivering a newborn. Unfortunately this was having a very negative effect and babies were dying at a very high rate. After some of this observation Semmelweis offered the very radical idea that doctors should wash their hands. The other doctors did not take too kindly to this suggestion, after all that was not the way they had been doing it all their professional lives. On top of that Ignaz was suggesting they were responsible for killing many of their patients. That certainly was not accepted well. As a result they rejected his suggestion even more vehemently. He became so scorned he even died penniless and in a mental institution. Apparently he couldn’t handle rejection.

Modern days

 According to Ms. Inglis-Arkell modern science has realized that doctors’ washing their hands is a very good thing. Most of us agree with that. In recognition of Semmelweis his named has been tied with the rejection of some new idea or discovery just because it is new. The phenomenon is called the Semmelweis Reflex. Inglis-Arkell says “The reflex stems from people’s unwillingness to shake up the customs they’re used to..”

One of the commenters on the article noted that Semmelweis’ biggest mistake was in how he introduced the change. Rather than accusing others of causing the death of patients he should have observed that mortality rates seemed to be too high and we should try to determine the cause. By washing hands what was being transmitted from one patient to another could have been eliminated as a cause.

In HR or management

Quite often as we introduce new ways of how to deal with people and processes we initially get rejection of our new idea. People reject it because it is new and it is going to take them out of a comfort zone. Perhaps if we were to introduce this new idea and being careful not to attack the “old” way we will have greater success and avoid the Semmelweis Reflex in dealing with other people.


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