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 ach