Really Useful Wisdom to Overcome Resistance to Change

In elementary school, choosing teams for kickball was somewhat traumatic for me. I was often the last or next to the last person chosen. The trauma had less to do with the absence of my athletic prowess. The discomfort I experienced was solely relational. Researchers today characterize what so many of us experienced on the playground as social rejection.

Social rejection is a trigger that the brain perceives as a threat. It’s in this biological event that helps to explain why we are resistant to change.

Why We Resist Change

Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA professor, points out that humans are socially driven. Lieberman notes that we equate social connections to survival. The brain is a social organ. “When your brain is at rest… [it is] thinking about other people or [yourself].” 

So, when you or I experience social rejection or any other trigger we view as a threat, the brain immediately goes into action. Our cognitive processes evaluate how to respond to the threat.

Let’s place this phenomenon in a work context. 

A change at work—a restructuring or learning a new way to do things at work—triggers the brain to evaluate what the new “thing” means to us. Change isn’t always viewed negatively. Employees may view change in a positive light.

For example, when I was consulting with a major organization that was moving to a new building, some employees viewed the change positively. Others saw the move as a threat.

For some, the change meant working in a new building, having new furniture, and even a shorter commute. These employees were excited. At the same time, some worried about coordinating childcare and worrying about the physical layout of the office.

For those who struggled with the move, it was viewed as a threat to their familiar routine. What’s intriguing to understand is how the brain responds to what is viewed as a threat to the status quo.  

The brain’s response to a threat is to divert oxygen and glucose from the blood to other parts of the brain. This automatic response impairs how we think, create, or solve problems.

The impaired thinking resulting from responding to the news about change interferes with employees’ performance. Reduced employee performance during times of change causes added stress to an employee, her team, and the company.

It’s not that employees resist change for the sake of resisting. It’s that our human experience views change as a threat. Layer over our biology with workplace realities linked to change and a messy reality presents itself. This messy reality is what contributes to the blowback leaders deal with whenever a change is announced.

How Companies Cause Change Resistance

Some researchers claim that 70 percent of change efforts fail to realize their business value. That percentage is often debated as an overstatement. My own experience, however, as an organizational behavioral practitioner leads me to believe the statistic is close to reality.

Contributing to resistance is the awkward way leaders roll out change. Their efforts are often clumsy, uniformed, and hastily rolled-out. Here are some ways company leaders entrench change resistance.

  1. Assume employees understand the need for change
  2. Not accounting for employees feeling a loss of control over how things will be
  3. Not preparing employees to be successful in the “new way things will be done”
  4. Undervaluing the importance work relationships have on team cohesion, belonging, and, ultimately, performance
  5. Slow or wishy-washy decision making related to the change

What Companies Can Do to Increase Change Adoption.

Ultimately, organizational change will happen regardless of how employees view what is changing. However, leaders do have a responsibility to prepare their teams for a company change. Employees also have a responsibility; employees need to find ways to understand and commit to the change. Leaders can leverage some of these tactics to boost change adoption.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. I’ve worked with executives who say, “I don’t know why employees say they didn’t know about this. I told them in an email.” It takes multiple times in multiple communication channels before anyone actually hears and understands what is happening.

Hold regular town halls. A successful change program maintains momentum. One way to keep people informed of changes or celebrate milestones is having town halls. The purpose is to put leaders front and center and lead conversations with employees. It also means allowing employees to ask questions.

Involve employees. There’s an old saying that says people don’t resist change. They resist change being thrust on them. Avoid thrusting change on employees by including their peers in visible roles in the change effort.

Plan to train employees early. Usually, change signals new ways of doing things. Ensure employees know early in the change effort what training will be available to them. 

Plan for quick wins. Unfortunately, in most companies, employees are skeptical of what leaders say. So, when planning the change, ensure there are several quick wins. Quick wins can be in the form of information available when promised. It can be achieving a milestone important to employees as planned. 

Make the change effort visible. For large change efforts, like those linked to technology implementations, publish a schedule showing the change plan. This builds accountability and reinforces transparency.

Change adoption requires ongoing plans that educate, inform, raise awareness about what is and isn’t changing. There is no one size fits all approach. However, there are essential ingredients for any organizational transformation: transparency, visibility of leaders, communication, and building and maintaining relationships.

The next time you plan to roll out a change at the office, keep the core ingredients in mind. 

Change isn’t transactional. It’s not linear. It’s not logical. Change is relational. It’s emotional. And it’s personal. 


By Shawn Murphy, Director of Organizational Development and Workplace Trends and
Author of Work Tribes: The Surprising Secret to Breakthrough Performance, Astonishing Results, and Keeping Teams Together

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