Why Even Our Brains Resist Organizational Change

A cartoon of a business meeting with one saying, "What if we don't change at all and something magical happens?"

Organizational change is resisted mainly because it is at odds with the status quo…you know, the comfortable patterns that we have assimilated and come to master.

Organizational psychologists have taught us that we should expect workers to balk at major change at first. Employees are likely to “fear” the unknown, they are not certain of where they fit into the new picture (or if there is a place for them at all), they may doubt the ability of leadership to effect the new change and they rather like the current situation where they know they can handle the job.

To help us succeed at the process of organizational change, change management consulting experts outline steps to follow that are most likely to win employees over and encourage their commitment to the desired behaviors and goals. They rightfully recommend clear and frequent communication to explain why the change is necessary, to fill in the blanks of how the change will be implemented, to describe how it will affect each employee and to inspire with the overall vision.

Recently, however, psychologists who focus on how neuroscience explains organizational behavior have joined the discussion. They shed additional light on why we naturally resist change. Our brains are actually designed to fight change for two reasons:

1. Brains are essentially lazy.
They prefer the tried and true routines. That’s why changing habits is so difficult. Our brains compare the new way with the old way and find the old way far easier because the patterns have already been learned and are familiar.

Think about how easy your commute has become. You barely have to think about the route or even the mechanics of driving the car. But when you need to rent an unfamiliar car and drive in unknown territory, it requires a lot more energy to focus and get you safely and efficiently to your destination.

2. Brains naturally respond to change with fear.
In her work on positivity, Barbara Frederickson, professor and Principal Investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab (PEPLab) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that positive emotions broaden one’s perspective and encourage building new skills; but negative emotions do just the opposite. Our thinking is constrained and decisions become difficult to make.

What can we do to alleviate these reactions? Here are two foundational suggestions from change management consulting experts:

• Strategic Clarity.
Be crystal clear about why the change is needed and give employees as much information as possible. The less their brains have to work to understand the rationale for change or to figure out where they fit in the change process the better. Brains struggle with uncertainty. Give them a break and answer all questions as best you can. Accurate information will give them some sense of control. Strategic clarity is the critical first step.

• Plan and Part.
Employees want to know the game plan and the specific part they are expected to play. Recognize that you are asking brains to think in a new way. Let employees know just what roles they will play in the new scenario so they can begin to think positively about the future and make necessary adjustments bit by bit. Be patient. Organizational change takes time and is often a bumpy road.

Benchmark your change initiative to see where you stand.

Download a free leadership change management toolkit.

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