Most corporate change initiatives are met with tremendous resistance and, not surprisingly, do not succeed. Accordingly, managers and leaders need to learn why this is so and what to do about it. Change is felt on a personal level. Unless organizations address the biological and emotional responses to change, they will continue to fall short in their attempts to lead successful change initiatives. Alternatively, when leaders proactively focus on how change affects the human system and how employees are impacted, they are more likely to learn how to listen to the resistance and speak the language that supports change.
Biological processes of creating habits
Habits are hard-wired into the basal ganglia part of the brain. In this area the brain makes connections to experiences and insights and functions effectively and efficiently without using a lot of energy. These connections, or habits, do not require much thinking or energy. When performing a task done consistently, such as driving to the office, one can be so focused on other things that there is no recollection of actually driving the car and making all the appropriate turns and stops. This is why habits are so hard to break—the brain has adopted this simple task of performing the habit without expending much energy, making it an efficient process. The brain reliably resists attempts to change these energy saving habits. It's "human nature" to take the path of least resistance, and the science explains why.
Change = Pain
Recent neuroscience research provides proof that "change" creates a threat to the habits hard-wired in the brain. When a threat is perceived, such as a change to a routine, attention and effort are required, which produces uncomfortable feelings and physiological discomfort. People resist this and retreat to an area of comfort where they can then try to understand the threat.
Employees generally do not have all the information to understand why the threat (change) is happening. Because they lack this information, they tend to think in a way that obstructs the change and contributes to multiple levels of resistance. They quickly direct their energy toward protecting the status quo. Leaders have a role in this pattern. They neglect to communicate consistently and frequently the reasons for the change and how it will affect employees. Without this knowledge, employees create stories (which aren't always accurate) to justify the change and they spread misinformation across informal networks within the organization, which results in negative energy. And like the Titanic, which couldn't be stopped in time once the iceberg was spotted, the momentum of negative energy surrounding the change initiative cannot be halted quickly. When employees feel threatened, they are more likely to leave the organization or transfer to other departments not affected by the change. With key talent depleted, the change initiative ultimately fails.
To achieve success with change initiatives, modify the way employees think and feel about change. One way to accomplish this is by enabling employees to self-discover the benefits of the change initiative through focused communication. When uncovering the answers to problems themselves, instead of being told how to do it, new insights in the brain are triggered and neurotransmitters (like adrenaline) are released. This creates a focus for the brain, which now pulls the activity away from the habit-forming area of the brain into the working memory—the pre-frontal cortex. This area of the brain requires more energy to function. When this happens, new connections, synapses, and insights develop; these are more commonly known as the "aha's" or "light bulb moments."
Yet, the working memory can only concentrate on a narrow amount of information at one time. The solution is focus. Detailed attention reshapes the patterns of the brain, leading to less discomfort associated with the threat or change and the creation of new behaviors. Keep employees focused on the ultimate benefits or outcomes of the change initiative through honest and regular communication. Inform employees early about the change initiative and allow for their input, when feasible, as to what's happening in the organization. Providing an outlet for them to share their discomfort about the change decreases the rumors, negative energy, and organizational paralysis surrounding the change initiative. In this way, leaders can continue to redirect employees' old habits and behavior patterns so they form new ones in line with the desired changes.
One size does not fit all
Today's organizations are comprised of multiple-generations, including Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation Y, and Gen X. Each of these has a unique perspective and method for approaching organizational change. For example, Baby Boomers prefer talking, and respond better to face-to-face meetings and teleconferences. On the other hand, Generation Y employees prefer the immediacy of technology that offers remote social networking. They like to get and give information quickly, whether through podcasts, texting, or the use of popular social networks like Facebook, Yammer, and Twitter. Incorporate the subtle differences among these groups into change initiative plans to decrease resistance and increase acceptance.
Shape the mind through coaching
Coaching assists employees to shift their thinking out of their comfort zones and normal habit-forming behaviors in order to form new ideas and actions. Coaching does not involve telling employees what to do or giving them all the answers. Rather it creates a space where employees use self-discovery and understanding about what keeps them from learning, growing, and achieving success. In this environment, they own the problem and the solution. They are more willing to put forth the effort to achieve success. They understand the bigger picture of the change initiative, how they fit in, and how their contributions matter. When change programs succeed, energy surrounds the organization. New ideas sprout up, and projects move forward with ease. Employees accept ideas they would have never considered previously. They expend energy in a positive way because they feel validated and needed by the organization. They sense the organization is taking their needs into consideration during this transition, and therefore feel less threatened, safe, and comfortable again. When the people aspects (habits, brain functions, and comfort levels) of the change initiative are considered and incorporated into the plan, the organization will have taken the necessary steps to facilitate an energetic and successful transformation.
Ken Buch is a senior consultant for Management Concepts, based in Vienna, VA. Founded in 1973, Management Concepts is an integrated training, consulting, and publishing company specializing in project management, critical leadership, and management skills. For more information, call 703.790.9595 or visit ManagementConcepts.com