Enterprise Software

Do our brains really resist change?

I just finished reading an article, “The New Science of Change,” in which the author attempts to make the case that we are biologically wired to resist change (evidence gathered through brain scans), and therefore change is difficult because our brains make it that way. Furthermore, this resistance to change is the result of change negatively affecting our pre-frontal cortex and causing us to experience physical and psychological discomfort. Therefore, we must use different managerial tactics that stimulate our brain differently if we want to implement successful change.

My response is: “Not so fast Sherlock!” Observing that certain parts of our brain “light up” when exposed to a change situation proves nothing other than that part of our brain is active when exposed to a certain stimulus. Thus we have a correlation. But as science tells us—correlation does not mean causation. In statistics class, we are often reminded that “ice cream sales and the number of shark attacks on swimmers are correlated.” However no one rightly jumps to the conclusion that eating ice cream causes you to be attacked by a shark.

I frankly believe that our response to change is a bit more complicated than “we are wired that way” and I believe more of our resistance to change is a result of learning rather than biological mechanisms.

In fact I am willing to argue that most of us like change if the change is positive and presented and managed correctly. For example, an employee gets called into a supervisor’s office and is told that because of her stellar work above and beyond the call of duty that her job title is being modified and her pay is being increased by 50 percent, retroactive to her start date. Her job duties remain the same; she is just being recognized for her true performance. Thus our employee has sustained a change in title and a significant pay increase. You think the employee is feeling pain or resistance to the change? Highly doubtful.

Another example: A poorly implemented time and attendance system that causes employees extreme aggravation on a daily and monthly basis replaces a not-so-modern, but extremely well-liked system. The new system is shut down and the old system is put back in place until a better solution can be found. The decision is greeted by cheers by the employees. You think they are feeling any psychological discomfort?

Most employees fear/resist/resent change because they have been trained to do so. Stop and think about most of the organizational change you have witnessed or heard about. See if you recognize any of these symptoms/traits:

1. There was poor or no planning that occurred in relation to the change.
2. The change was poorly communicated or not communicated at all.
3. Key personnel were not consulted regarding the change.
4. The timing of the change was horrible.
5. The people required to make the change were not given slack in order to make up for the extra burden of trying to implement the change; thus, the change itself was just more work piled on top of their existing work.
6. Related to number 1, the estimates regarding the changes impact were completely off base.
7. Not enough resources were dedicated to making the change successful.
8. The “correct” people were not held accountable for making the change successful.
9. The change implemented resulted in more work than the process it replaced.
10. Something bad happened as a result of the change – terminations, re-assignments, mass exodus of good employees, the promotion of the “wrong” people.

Shall I go on? Given enough thought and your input, I bet together we could fill two or three typed pages regarding change done wrong. And people wonder why there is resistance to change? Come on now – you know the saying, “Once burnt, twice shy.” We have all learned and been conditioned to expect change to fail. Resistance? No wonder our brains “light up”—we are already anticipating the likely outcome!

We are predisposed to be reluctant to change because by and large organizations suck at it! That is the cold hard truth. And because organizational change is affecting us in the place where we spend the majority of our time during the day and from which we derive our livelihood, (and often our self esteem) wouldn’t any sane person be a little gun shy?

I haven’t done a scientific study on this but my gut and experience tells me that the top three reasons change fails are:

1.  Lack of proper planning. This is a broad category that includes many of the items listed above. But it generally involves research, critical thinking, and common sense.

2.  Improper communication. Particularly the lack of it. Communication is the culprit in the vast majority of change breakdowns.

3.  Lack of accountability and consequences for failure. People are rarely held accountable for their lack of results— particularly management— and very often the people most responsible for failure are never implicated nor reprimanded.

So what does this mean to you as a change agent Mr. and Ms. Information Technology? It means that your probability for success is low from the start when you are responsible for creating organizational change, and that your audience is pre-disposed to skepticism. So in a nut shell: you have your work cut out for you.

Now that you know what you are up against – you can plan accordingly. It takes a tremendous amount of capital to successfully implement change—emotional, political, economic, personal and social—and you have to have the power and/or influence to exact change.

However there is a positive note to all this. Because much of our reluctance to change is learned, once you develop a track record for successful change implementation, people will buy into your next change effort that much easier. Just don’t get lazy about doing all the things that success requires. If you do that – you are almost guaranteed to fail. So go forth and try and manage change successfully—just try not to let your “wiring” get in the way ;-)

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