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Looking at Resistance to Change from a Neuroscience Perspective

We're used to thinking about resistance to change as a by-product of fear of the unknown or a response to perceived threat. There is a third and equally powerful cause for resistance we should be aware of from a Neuroscience perspective.

As change leaders, we've known for a long time that people experience discomfort because of unknown and threatening elements of change. As a result, we've become experts in how to minimize threat. Not that we always get to practice what we know, but when we do, we try to create effective communication and design change to reduce threat in areas that are most important to people like autonomy and a sense of fairness.

When people resist change, what are they responding to?

  • Fear of the unknown.

  • Perceived threats.

  • (The discomfort associated with the need to unlearn and rewire the brain).

But there is another, powerful, super important aspect of resistance to change that is relatively new and requires our attention. Even if we design the external environment perfectly to reduce threat and communicate effectively to reduce fear of the unknown, there is another type of resistance that can block progress and bring change to a standstill.

What we need to know about resistance associated with the need to unlearn and rewire the brain?

  1. Whenever Unlearning is involved, this third source of resistance is part of the process. No ifs or buts about it.

  2. It happens because the brain is "attached" to previous ways of thinking, responding, behaving, acting, and interacting. Even if people get that the new way of doing things is better for them, if change requires Unlearning, people will often still resist (no matter how excellent of a job we do to create trust, transparency, and increase certainty, although those are an important foundation).

  3. People experience this resistance response just as strongly when they deeply want to achieve certain outcomes and do not feel threatened or uncertain in any way.

  4. It is not something people do to block change per se, it would be more accurate to see it as something that "impacts” them, often against their will, blocking them from achieving desired outcomes

  5. It's not just difficult or non-cooperative individuals who resist change. Everyone who needs to unlearn will at the very least, experience the subconscious discomfort associated with the need to rewire the brain and will experience this type of resistance.

  6. This type of resistance is not a bug, it's a feature. In the right degree of intensity, this discomfort is designed to get emotional attention so that we will have the right environment to rewire the brain (too little emotional engagement leads to intellectual understanding that is not followed by change in practice, and too much emotional engagement creates overload and blocks our ability to engage rationally).

  7. This third type of resistance response is often invisible. People are unaware of the need to rewire, they don't assign the discomfort they feel to the need to rewire and since they don't - they often misassign that discomfort to more tangible or visible aspects of change.

  8. It’s not a logical, rational reaction to change. In most cases, logical and rational explanations about what the change is and why it's needed are not much help here.

  9. Overcoming this powerful change blocking resistance response can be achieved through introspection and mindfulness but not all individuals and teams are introspective enough for this to always work.

  10. In the absence of sufficient introspection and mindfulness abilities or when working with a wide change, like the large scope of organization-wide development efforts, the second best is often needed. In those cases, this resistance response requires us to create a positive, healthy, effective accountability structure to ensure people successfully work through their brain-rewiring-related discomfort.

What can you do to better identify this type of resistance with your clients and how can you support them to recognize it and overcome it?

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