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Why we Hate Change

Artist credit: Victoria Cowan

How can you tell the difference between truly great leaders and wannabees? Just look at their track record of driving real and lasting change in their organizations. Nothing else is so vexing or so important in our complex and ever-changing business environment.

I have often heard people say that they love change, but when I probe a little, they usually mean that they enjoy change if they are in control. Change imposed by someone or something else is a completely different matter, and our deeply rooted resistance is actually based in neurobiology – and not a sign of laziness or a bad attitude. Our brains are continually developing based on repetition – the more that we do something, the stronger the associated neural connections. This is equally true for basic motor functions such as walking or talking as for tasks that we undertake as part of our day-to-day routine at work. From an evolutionary point of view we crave this routine, as it helps us to manage the energy expended by our brains throughout the day – not a trivial pursuit given that the brain consumes 20% of the total energy expended by the body.

So we are literally wired to resist change, and only when we are making a conscious decision to make a change can we develop the energy and excitement to push through our predisposition to resist. When we lack this control because someone else imposes a change on to us, our immediate reaction is to hunker down. A leader who endeavours to change his or her organization is literally fighting against these powerful evolutionary and neurobiological patterns. For this reason I firmly believe that there is no such thing as “quick” transformational change in an organization, and I encourage you to run away as fast as you can from any consultant who is selling the snake oil of “quick change.”

Real organizational change results from deliberate, consistent and patient actions and communication from the leadership team over an extended period of time. Many writers have adopted the Five Stages of Grief model to try to understand organizational change, and I have found that this related four-stage model works quite well:

The model starts with Denial – the feeling that “this too will pass” – that the announced change is a mistake and will soon be rescinded. Individuals soon drop down into Exploration – asking lots of questions to help them understand the proposed change and how it will affect them. This is quickly followed by the neurobiologically driven instinct to resist – either overtly or covertly. Some people might just shut down at this point, while others will belligerently list the many reasons why the proposed change is doomed to fail. The main insight of this model is that it is not unidirectional. People tend to swing back and forth between Exploration and Resistance many times before they resolve their feelings. This can be extremely unnerving for an unprepared leader who thinks he is making progress when he is told: “This new sales incentive plan might really work” only to have the same person mutter the next day that “This is the stupidest idea ever.”

When I coach leaders who are undertaking significant change initiatives, I encourage them to be patient and consistent while their team members literally develop the new neural connections required to become comfortable with the change, and during this time they can expect team members to swing back and forth many times between Exploration and Resistance. During this time, leaders can explain, nurture and encourage, but they can’t magically speed up the process. Leaders who think that they have, through force of will, pushed through major changes in record time have most often only repressed resistance, which is sure to pop up again, nastier than ever, once the pressure from the top subsides.

Becoming a great transformational leader is not at all based on some kind of superhuman skill, but rather on maintaining focus, energy and consistency while the organzation adapts.

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