Not all Change is Created Equal.
What’s the Deal with Resistance to Change in Organizations?
We humans adapt and change easily as a normal part of life. We do it all the time in our personal lives and have a rich history of doing it collectively as well. When you really think about it, we make small changes and take big leaps often without lots of drama. As children, we grow and develop through different social and psychological stages. For most adults, we adjust to change as part of our normal functioning as we navigate big life changing decisions such as changing jobs, marrying or moving in together or breaking up, buy a house, move across the country, downsize, etc. We change then change again without being paralyzed by it.
Of course, while there is always some adjustment or transition period, most of us get on with living our lives. So, the question becomes: Why is change at work so different than the everyday changes we go through in our personal lives?
The Neuroscience of Change
Before we answer that core question, let’s examine what neuroscience has taught us about how our brains function and handle change. Adrienne Fox (The Brain at Work, published in HR Magazine v.53 no.3, March 2008) perfectly addresses what’s been learned about the brain and how our brains naturally react to change and social situations around us:
- The observation of “social pain such as being rejected or berated, unfairness, disrespect or injustice affects the brain the same as physical pain.” While observation of “social fairness and respect give the brain a positive chemical boost.”
- The experience of “uncertainty and ambiguity arouse[s] fear circuits – thus, decreasing our ability to make good decisions.” Thus, your “employees’ ability to think clearly can be hindered when employers fail to meet expectations or create uncertainty in the workplace.”
- The experience of “stress can cause people to think unclearly.”
So, as you can see, the brain reacts to social situations similarly to physical pain. But what about the brain and change on a more positive note?
- To reduce the ambiguity and stress of change, we all “need to experience some ownership over situations to better accept changes. Even a little choice helps.” Important to note that this is not the same as “buy-in” or being told into submission but genuine choice in matters directly affecting us.
- The antidote to ensuring easy adaption to change requires positively “engaging people in active learning and participation” in the change itself “which improves retention, removes ambiguities and improves ownership.”
- Lastly and most recently, we’ve discovered just how much our brains love patterns, too. Entire neural and chemical connections and networks fill our brains based on patterns. Which explains how hard change can be and why we need “transitions” to learn and establish new patterns of living, coping and working.
Now, knowing these six points, how might you answer the question: Why can change at work be so difficult as compared to the everyday changes we go through in our personal lives?
To answer why there tends to be resistance to change in organizations, first you need to understand that not all change is the same.
Not All Change is the Same
So, if we can change so frequently for ourselves in day-to-day life, what is it about change in the workplace that is so difficult?
Why is it that we encounter so many instances of “resistance?”
Merrelyn Emery, co-author and master practitioner of collaborative Search Conference and Participative Design Methodologies based on Open Systems Theory, sums it up perfectly:
“People aren’t resistance to change, they’re sick and tired of being told what to do and how to do it.”
At ON THE MARK, we categorize workplace change into two buckets: compliance-based change or commitment-based change.
Resistance is the Result of Compliance-Based Change
“Compliance-based change” is pushed down from the top. Managers and employees are told what to do and how to do it. Affected employees lack any context and relevance for the change being proposed and most often have not had any influence on the change. Sure, they may be sent a deck explaining the change or communicated to by their line leader… But the compliance aspect of the change remains the same.
The term “buy-in” is often used by leaders applying compliance-based change. While there is a place for compliance-based change, the fundamental problems with it begins with understanding the neuroscience of the brain and change previously addressed.
What about this thing called resistance to change in organizations? Consider that resistance is NOT the result of people not wanting to change. It is the result of compliance-based change. Resistance is the self-inflicted consequence of pushing change onto others by leaders that has little-to-no relevance, meaning or context for those who must make the change real. And, when coupled with our brain’s desire for patterns and need for some “ownership” over the change, it’s not difficult to see how resistance emerges.
It’s not rocket science… it’s neuroscience.
How is Commitment-Based Change Different?
On the other hand, commitment-based change is fully aligned to the findings in the neuroscience anchored by transparency, fairness, trust and participation of those affected stakeholders in the change itself. It is characterized by leaders setting parameters and constrains then enlisting their employees in solving real workplace issues and problems. This is a completely different way to change in organizations.
But, this type of change scares most command and control leaders who believe it’s their right to make changes and tell those affected stakeholders about the change. They think this is strong leadership. And of course, you have an entire consulting, technology and change management industries reinforcing this compliance-based change approach because it sets them up as experts that then businesses need.
At OTM we refer to this as a “pay now or pay later” situation. The evidence has shown us that while the commitment-based approach to change takes more time upfront, it gets implemented up to 25% faster (ROI) and is sustained longer because it is owned by employees and leaders. Conversely, compliance-based change, while faster upfront, is up to 25% slower in the uptake and adoption of new behaviors is solely based on compliance. Plus, this approach to change sets up an outdated parent-child relationship between leaders and employees.
Push vs Pull – Leaders Now Have a Choice
Finally, let’s answer the original question: Why can change at work be so difficult as compared to the everyday changes we go through in our personal lives?
Let’s face it, most companies and leaders do change badly. When they do change, it’s based on a “push” or compliance-based change approach. And, consider the role that patterns play in the brain. Leaders get promoted based on their experiences. If the only experience they have is compliance-based change, that’s what they know. That’s what they do. Patterns die hard.
Employee engagement to these leaders mean cake and ice cream for all. The phrase are employees are our most important asset are words on a page. They don’t know how to put this into practice
For more enlightened and high emotional intelligent leaders who been through experiences of change based on a science-based approach or have had such a painful experience of change done badly in the past– they choose a different path. Remember the brain science…? These leaders understand the value of engaging the head and hearts of their people into real problem solving and the real value this level of participation contributes to the workplace. Engagement for them runs deep.
Leaders have a very real choice about how they want to go about change. In fact, the evidence shows that how a leader chooses to go about change may be more important than the change itself. Changing a business and supporting behaviors is not easy even when done right. But if you want to be successful in making change stick fast, you desire a faster ROI to your investment and you believe your people are your most important asset, then stop talking and demonstrate it. Your only decision is to take the right change approach and partner with the right expertise who supports you in your chosen path.
Mark LaScola is the Founder and Managing Principal of ON THE MARK (OTM).
OTM is the leading global boutique organization design consultancy with close to 450 operating model modernizations completed entirely collaboratively. We’ve done complex change work for 30+ years on five continents, with every type of business function and enterprise-wide in 35+ countries across most industry sectors. Our practical wisdom, deep expertise, experience and passion for collaborative business transformation is second to none. We’d love to hear from you on this article or related topics. You can reach Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.