Thursday, May 23, 2013

Managing Resistance to Change

Why is it that most organizations struggle to make real change? Whether it is consolidating a merger, re-engineering business processes, restructuring, changing value propositions, introducing new IT systems, relocating premises, or any other type of change, all too often the process is derailed by the resistance of employees.

Resistance to change is one of the most powerful drivers of human behavior, and the key to dealing with it effectively is to understand both its physical and emotional components.


Have you ever had the experience of hearing a song that instantly brought back memories taking you to another time and place? This happens because the song triggers memories in your brain, memories that were created through neural-pathways established in the past.

Neural-pathways are formed in your brain to enable you to quickly recognize a situation and automatically react to it, almost without thinking. These pathways form in much the same way as you might wear a path through a grassy field. The first time you walk through you don't leave much of a trail, but each subsequent pass makes the trail more noticeable and easier to navigate. The same thing happens when your brain forms a neural-pathway.

When Your Neural-Pathways Fire Into Action

Your neural-pathways fire into action when you encounter a situation that triggers a memory of a familiar pattern. Because the circumstances appear to fit that remembered pattern, your brain reacts almost instantly without having to think about it.

Here's an example of how this might occur in the workplace. Your phone rings and the caller ID shows up a number you know all too well. You think to yourself, ‘Oh, no, what does HE want?' or ‘Oh God, she only phones me if it's trouble".

Another example is when the boss asks if you've "just got ten minutes" to talk about something. In a flash your hands go clammy and your stomach turns over because you're positive that nothing good will come from the next ten minutes.

What causes the reactions in each of these cases? The answer is in the limbic system in your brain. It shifts into high gear and starts working overtime when a memory is triggered. You can't help it, you immediately recall all the bad times that occurred when that caller rang in or the boss wanted to see you. Your reactions are based on both emotional and physical realities. How does it do this?

The Amygdala

The amygdala is an almond-shaped area of the brain that triggers the "fight or flight" reaction. Your brain has two amygdalae, and they play a fundamental role in ensuring your survival. Sometimes, though, the amygdalae set off a false alarm. This is what I call The Almond Effect®.

Put simply, you fire up into action without thinking and get it wrong. You can probably think of many times when this has happened, times when you said or did something in the heat of the moment, and almost immediately afterwards regretted it

The Almond Effect® and Resistance to Change

The Almond Effect® is critical if survival really is at stake, but at work it often gets in the way. It is the reason why all too often, human beings automatically react to change with resistance, even before they fully understand the nature of the change.

The amygdala has activated the fear response based on previous memories of change associated with, for example, job losses, more work, new skills required, change of roster, cost cutting and so on. Stress hormones are released as part of the inbuilt flight/fight mechanism and show up at work as anger, anxiety, lethargy, poor performance and reluctance to change.

The only way to overcome this resistance is to convince employees that the changes or new initiatives enhance their ability to ‘survive'. If you don't convince them, they may comply with changes for a while but will soon fall back into the old way of doing things. Their older, established neural-pathway patterns are simply more hard wired than the new ones. 

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