Big, Bad Change

Who’s Afraid of the
Big, Bad Change?

Resistance to change is no fairy tale,
so let’s use neuroscience to rewrite the story.

Once upon a time, there was a company that had happy employees and mediocre business results. One day, the company announced a big change that would enable improved growth and profitability. Even though a healthier company meant more stability and increased opportunities, the employees freaked out and refused to adopt the change. The end.

As silly as this story seems, it doesn’t sound too far off from reality, does it? Even though it’s a fictional tale, it does make me wonder why people resist change, even when they have something to gain from it. Think about it: Why are people so afraid to let go of the past and explore new beginnings? Why do we habitually resist things that are new or different?

Why are people so afraid to let go of the past and explore new beginnings? Why do we habitually resist things that are new or different?

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of change resistance. It’s a people problem, which makes it also a business problem. Companies spend millions of dollars each year on projects designed to change some aspect of their business. They invest time, resources, and energy to evolve, improve, and grow. However, if they don’t properly manage resistance, it can limit the effectiveness of their solutions and impact their ability to achieve a positive return on their investment. Resistance is the enemy of innovation. Whereas innovation spurs organizations toward progress and redefines what is possible, resistance blocks progress and puts up boundaries.

Change resistance manifests itself in many ways; it can look like anger, non-compliance, even apathy. We’ve all experienced resistance in one way or another, and I’m sure we could tell some interesting stories about how we’ve personally resisted change (or how our friends, colleagues, or spouses have). Yet, the story I want to tell is quite a different one. This story can help you understand how to help your people overcome the threat of change and embrace change instead.

The Threat of Change

For this story, we have to go way, way back to our evolutionary roots. Neuroscience tells us that all human beings experience a physiological reaction to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. Our brains evolved over time to become hardwired to scan our environment for anything that seems out of the ordinary. When we identify something as different than what we expect, our brain labels it as a “threat,” which automatically triggers our fight-or-flight response.

One of my favorite examples of threat identification is from the movie Office Space (1999). In this movie, a company brings in a team of consultants to do some job-task analysis. Upon arrival, the consultants—who are both named Bob—sequester themselves in a conference room and begin interviewing employees one by one about their jobs. They ask pointed questions like, “What would you say that you do here?”

When we identify something as different than what we expect, our brain labels it as a “threat,” which automatically triggers our fight-or-flight response.

The camera then pans to the nervous employee who is sitting across the table with a worried look on their face and a bead of sweat rolling down their forehead. Clearly, the perceived threat in this situation are the Bobs. The mere presence of the Bobs instills panic across the workforce as everyone’s fight-or-flight responses kick in. Employees begin huddling around the water cooler wondering what their motives are; as they speculate, the rumor mill is born.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of fight or flight. What you might not know is that, when our brains push us into this survival mode, our ability to produce rational thoughts is impaired. Cognitive functions like problem solving and creativity decrease because our brain is preoccupied by the threat. These fight-or-flight responses coupled with decreased cognitive function are the real culprits for why many people respond to change with resistance, even when the change is in their best interest.

Rewrite the Story of Change

Luckily, this is not the end of the story. There are some very simple things that you can do to minimize change resistance within your organization. Now that you understand the neurological factors that influence resistance, let’s explore the situational factors that are within your control to rewrite the story of change.

When employees resist change, you can almost always count on three situational factors at play.

  1. They were surprised by the change and may not fully understand it.
  2. They feel angry or upset because they feel like something is being done to them, rather than with them.
  3. They focus more on the perceived loss rather than the potential gain.

So, what does all of this mean in terms of change management?

Rule 1: No surprises.

The #1 rule of change management is no surprises. When people are surprised, their survival instincts kick in, and their cognitive abilities decline. At TiER1, we use a structured approach to change. Our methodology is designed to anticipate and overcome resistance through a series of just-in-time solutions. By leveraging our understanding of neuroscience and human behavior, we’re able to anticipate the journey and minimize the impact of surprises along the way.

Rule 2: Close the gap.

Make sure to close the gap between what employees expect to receive or do and what they actually receive or do. The bigger the gap, the greater the amount of stress and disruption your people experience. To close the gap, we encourage our clients to communicate early and often with truthfulness and transparency. Aligning employees around the vision and expected benefits of change helps to inform and engage them. It also reduces their sense of loss and refocuses them on the positive outcomes that will result from the change.

Rule 3: Do it right.

Deploy the right intervention at the right time to provide people with adequate time, information, and support to help them adapt and adopt a new way of working. We at TiER1 feel strongly that engaging people who are impacted in the solution design, implementation planning, or as a change champion makes those people more willing to advocate, support, and adopt the change.

When we properly manage change resistance, we can rewrite the story of change management and help our people feel like heroes. By using neuroscience and innovative change management methodologies, we can inspire people to overcome perceived threats to their survival and actually embrace change. Now that’s the kind of story I love to tell.

Need to introduce change at your organization, but not sure where to start? Click here to learn about TiER1’s change management methodology and how we activate initiatives through a holistic, empathetic lens.

Leia McKinnonLeia McKinnon is a principal change management consultant and the market consulting director for Denver at TiER1. She is passionate about applying brain-based principles to behavior change and helping employees deliver business value through exceptional performance. Living in Colorado allows Leia to take full advantage of the outdoors. When she’s not helping clients improve performance, she’s hiking, cycling, and skiing in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and two kids.

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