Why is it that most organizations struggle mightily 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 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.
Dealing With Resistance to Change
Most organizations make two fatal errors when it comes to dealing with resistance to change. First, they under-estimate the strength of current patterns that are comfortable and familiar to employees. Second, they also under-estimate what will be required to change those patterns and deal with the automatic, though sometimes subtle, fight or flight responses that occur when employees interpret changes as threats.
Our brains are hard wired to do three things: match patterns, resist or fight any threats to survival, and respond first with emotion over logic. So how can you get employees to rewire their brains and build new neural-pathways that will support change initiatives?
Neurobiologists can show, using brain scans, that rational decision making is inextricably intertwined with emotions. Human beings are primarily emotional and secondarily rational, so emotions call the shots in business and in life. Unless an organization accepts and addresses this reality, managing change with an emphasis on logic not emotion will not diminish resistance to organizational change.
Does Your Organisation Reinforce Fear of Change?
Let me ask you to reflect. What does YOUR organisation do to reinforce people’s fears and passions about change? What do you do to rewire their neural-pathways? How have you been reinforcing their resistance to change? What are you doing to encourage changeability?
What subconscious patterns have been laid down by you or your organization that might invoke your employees’ amygdalae and build up their resistance? Do you only call them into your office to deliver them bad news? If so, don’t be surprised if their hackles are up and they are already on the defensive before they even get into your office.
Does the CEO only communicate to announce bad news and say, again, that the company is in a difficult situation? Does a departmental meeting usually mean bad news and more work? Is the appearance of the human resources director only ever associated with retrenchments? Even in these examples it is easy to see how employees may be on the defensive regardless of the real facts when they see a message from the CEO, a department meeting called or the HR director walking around.
What Can You Do?
Let me make a few suggestions. Say your change initiative is to vary your value proposition from high volume/low margin to innovation and first to market. In other words you want your people to be more creative and take a few risks in developing new products and finding new ways to deliver to the customer. Now this could be pretty challenging when the previous approach had put accuracy and dependability above all things. Patterns have been set up to expect reward for not taking risk.
My suggestion would be that if you want people to change to now be risk takers, frame the situation as threatening. For example: our market share has fallen and competition is overtaking us because of its cost effectiveness. We can’t match their efficiencies without pain so we need to have either new products or better service and regain market share. If we can’t do this, then we’ll have to cut costs, and that will mean jobs.
In other words, try focusing on shifting the emotional response. Challenge their amygdalae by showing why the change is
- Will ensure the company’s survival
Challenge pre-existing patterns and memories, address history, look at the good things that have occurred, validate them and then show why the patterns need to change.
Build in ways to reinforce the new patterns. Milestones reached, goals kicked. Have celebrations – connect new patterns with good emotional memories not bad ones. But don’t be surprised if this seems to take a long time.
Our brains do have plasticity. Our brains can be retrained, but remember that neural pathway field. It has to be well trodden before it becomes easy and clear to follow and our natural choice.