“Change hurts. It makes people insecure, confused, and angry. People want things to be the same as they’ve always been, because that makes life easier. But, if you’re a leader, you can’t let your people hang on to the past.” Richard Marcinko
“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” George Bernard Shaw quotes
An article in Strategy + Business from Booz Allen & Hamilton, The Neuroscience of Leadership, way back in 2006 , described how change hurts and how people respond to that hurt. Generally people respond to change with resistance even when it is a matter of personal survival, This is because the brain works by relegating routine tasks to a part of the brain that requires little energy – freeing up the more energy-intensive part to process new things. Dealing with new things can be a very intensive and tiring experience. The same is true with organizational change. People become used to a routine at work and fall into using the equivalent of auto-pilot. When you introduce change you engage the more intense part of the brain
But that is not all – there is another force at work in the brain that resists change. The brain is very much wired to detect “errors” in its environment – perceived differences between expectations and what it is actually finding. When it thinks an error has detected, it triggers the fright and flight mechanism. This is one of the most primitive parts of the brain and was used to protect us in earlier stages in our development.. This fires up our reactions – the heart begins to pump blood ready for us to run away! It hijacks our thinking. We can become emotional and start acting impulsively – our protective animal instinct takes over.
So when you ask people to engage in change – their brain will start sending powerful warning signals that something is going wrong. They may well become uncomfortable and feel stress. But if you can get them to focus on something – a particular problem or process – they will be distracted and start to develop new neural connections. If these are reinforced enough they will become part of their subconscious. If you can get them engaged in actively imagining the change – the fright effect will soften as the other parts of the brain take over. But If you start forcing actions on them without engagement you will increase the negative reaction.
So what is the best way to approach change. Well the same study found that if the brain has a “moment of insight” coming from within (coming to a solution/conclusion by itself), there may be sudden adrenaline-like burst of high energy. This is conducive to creating new links in the brain. So if you focus people on solutions instead of problems, they will have their own in-sights, come to their own conclusions and forge their own new links.
All this is useful but at the end of the day, as a change manager, the choice is yours! Do you want to engage with fright, flight, resistance and negativity? Wouldn’t you rather share the task, go for active engagement and make the change a more positive experience for all!