Why our brains can’t help resisting change

In Chapter 18, we talk about ‘brain games’ or heuristics, the brain’s automatic programs that are designed to help us wade through complexity quickly. The brain is also hard-wired to resist change, which has huge implications for today’s managers who introduce and manage change regularly. Three programs in particular are designed to provide a sense of psychological security and they kick in particularly strongly whenever people are confronted with change – as most of us are in today’s workplaces.

First, the brain is programmed to seek evidence that the world is consistent: familiar, orderly, predictable and safe. That’s why people prefer bosses who are predictable, why familiar work routines are comforting and why change is uncomfortable and stressful.

The second brain program looks for the justice; we all feel much better when we believe our organisation’s mission is worthwhile and that it will treat us fairly. That’s why organisations have policies designed to protect employees and ensure they are treated fairly (dispute handling procedures, dignity and harassment policies, health, safety and welfare policies, etc.). And that’s why when you introduce change, even for a good reason, the ‘That’s not fair!’ cry can be heard loud and clear.

The third brain program looks for a sense of ‘culture’, or an accepted understanding of the way things are done around here. So when an organisation changes its key strategies or mission or when a work team reorganises itself, people need to remodel the way they view the world around them, and people don’t like doing that. Even when the reasons for changing ‘the way we do things’ are good, the implication that the way we’ve been doing them isn’t good hangs in the air.

So when peoples’ comfort zones or sense of consistency and justice are threatened, they tend to cross their arms, dig their heels in and fight (or ignore) the changes, or they try to escape to greener pastures. To prevent that and help people feel more comfortable with whatever change you’re introducing, keep up the information flow – what’s happening, why it’s happening, how people will be affected, how you’ll help them get used to the change. When you can, put the change in terms of ‘These are adjustments, or adaptations’ as opposed to making the change sound huge or like an about-face.

Take a look at this interesting article by James R. Bailey and Jonathan Raelin on the Harvard Business Review site.

Questions for discussion

What was the last workplace change you experienced? Did it pull you out of your comfort zone or did you feel that it was in some way unjust?

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