Do you make these errors?
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 or to announce 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 fornot taking risk.
My suggestion would be that if you encounter resistance from people to this change, i.e. from playing it safe to risk takers, you have to reframe 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 to regain market share. If we can’t do this, then we’ll have to cut costs, and that will mean jobs.
Focus on their emotional response
In other words, focus on shifting the emotional response. Challenge their existing neural pathways and engage their amygdalae by showing why the change is
(a) Urgent (b) 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 any new neural pathway has to be strongly embedded before it becomes easy and clear to follow and becomes our natural choice.