Change Management: People Are Hard-Wired to Resist Change

By Emerson Consulting Manager, Chris Pennington

 Dog on a leash

Do you like to try new things?  Of course you do! Ok, let’s put it to the test. Why don’t you try driving a new way to work tomorrow? Or how about trying a new grocery store? A new dry cleaners? Maybe you want to re-think your answer.

That’s okay, it just means you’re like the rest of us. We are hardwired to resist change – it’s natural. Part of the brain - the amygdala – interprets change as a threat to the body and releases the hormones for fear, fight or flight. Your body is actually protecting you from change.

That is why so many people in an organization, when presented with a new initiative or idea - even a good one, with tons of benefits - will resist it.

But there is good news for organizations and individuals trying to change. By focusing on three things, we can overcome the psychological costs of change that keep us chained to the past.

  • Dissatisfaction with the way things are now
  • A positive vision of the future
  • Concrete steps to make the vision a reality

These are the elements of Gleicher’s Formula

D x V x F > R

Dissatisfaction x Vision x First concrete steps > Resistance

In other words, the pain of loss is greater than the power of gain.

Let me explain it this way. Every Friday evening I meet a group of friends for appetizers or dinner at a local restaurant. We have been going to the same place for a little over five years. Every so often, someone will suggest we try a new place. We have tried a new place or two, but we always end up back at our regular spot.  Recently, management changed at our regular spot, and suddenly the service started to get worse and worse. Our orders got messed up, food took longer to arrive, and our checks were often wrong. Despite this pain and poor service we stayed – we were resistant to change. Finally, our dissatisfaction with the service reached a tipping point (so to speak), and we started thinking how much happier we would be somewhere else. After some back and forth, we finally decided to change our Friday hang-out spot. We considered alternatives, chose one, and made a reservation.

Our (D)issatisfaction with the current place multiplied by our positive (V)ision of the new place multiplied by our (F)irst concrete step to actually move was much greater than our (R)esistance to change.

Needless to say, our new place has been much better than our old place; the service has been fantastic.  The wait staff even helped throw a going away party for one of the guys in our group before he moved out of town.  Looking back, it seems crazy we resisted changing places for so long.  But it’s human nature.

So how can we apply this to organizational change? Let’s say your organization is launching new technology that will impact many employees.

  • Surface all the frustrations with the current system. Focus attention on how it causes trouble for users, costs the business money, and might lead to poor business performance that affects employees. That’s your (D).
  • Describe or demonstrate life after the new system, including a better work life for employees and business success. There’s the (V).
  • Engage employees in small steps toward the change, like choosing change leaders and engineering quick-win practice sessions for users. Now you have (F).
Changing is much easier said than done, but when we turn the organization’s attention to Dissatisfaction, a Vision of the future, and take First steps, Resistance doesn’t stand a chance.

Sources

  • Beckhard, Richard. Organization Development: Strategies and Models. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1969.

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