Why We Resist Change, and What Leaders Can Do About It.
By Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.
Monday, 2nd January 2012
Don't you just hate dealing with people who fight against every plan for organizational change? You know the type: They're disruptive, set in their ways, and highly resistant to change, even when it is obviously in the best interest of the business. Well guess what? New research suggests that those trouble-making, inflexible, change resistors are . . . all of us!

Recent advances in brain analysis technology allow researchers to track the energy of a thought moving through the brain in much the same way as they track blood flowing through the body. And, as scientists watch different areas of the brain light up in response to specific thoughts, it becomes clear that, when it comes to change, we all react pretty much the same way. We try to avoid it.

Most of our daily activities, including many of our work habits, are controlled by a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. These habitual, repetitive tasks take much less mental energy to perform because they have become "hardwired" and we no longer have to give them much conscious thought. "The way we've always done it" is mentally comfortable. It not only feels right – it feels good.

Change jerks us out of this comfort zone by stimulating the prefrontal cortex, an energy-intensive section of the brain responsible for insight and impulse control. But the prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to the amygdala (the brain's fear circuitry, which in turn controls our "flight or fight" response). And when the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed with complex and unfamiliar concepts, the amygdala connection gets kicked into high gear. All of us are then subject to the physical and psychological disorientation and pain that can manifest in anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, fatigue or anger.

It's no wonder that logic and common sense aren't enough to get people to sign up for the next corporate restructuring.

So what's a leader to do?

1. Trust people to see the need for change

You can't "sell" change and you can't command it. But you can provide enough background information (about trends, customer demands, competitive pressure, and other key issues) and a forum for people to reflect on and discuss the implications of those forces for the organization. You've hired the best and the brightest. Trust them with the facts and let them reach their own conclusions.

2. Make new ideas become familiar

With change comes the need for an ongoing communication strategy. It takes a lot of repetition to move a new or complex concept from the prefrontal cortex to the basil ganglia. Continually talking about change and focusing on key aspects will eventually allow the novel to become more familiar and less threatening.

3. KISS your communication

The prefrontal cortex can deal well with only a few concepts at one time. As tempting as it may be to lump everything you know about the change into one comprehensive chunk – don't do it. Your job is to help people make sense of complexity by condensing it into two or three critical goals they can understand and absorb.

4. Never underestimate the power of a vision

And, by using the term vision, I'm not referring to a corporate statement punctuated by bullet points. I'm talking about a clearly articulated, emotionally charged, and broad picture of what the organization is trying to achieve.

5. Don't "sugar coat" the truth

The prefrontal cortex is always on guard for signals of danger. When overly optimistic outcomes or unrealistic expectations are exposed (and they always are) the prefrontal cortex switches to high alert – looking for other signs of deception and triggering the limbic brain to respond with feelings of heightened anxiety.

6. Watch your body language

When discussing organizational change initiatives, there are two conversations taking place, and the second, nonverbal one, can reinforce or sabotage your verbal message. When your body language (which speaks directly to the limbic brain) is out of alignment with your stated message, people will believe what they see and not what you say. And they will do so quickly and unconsciously, not always able to articulate why they sense something is "off." One final note: Because body language tends to reveal your real motives and feelings, if you don't truly support the change, don't try to convince others. They'll see right through you.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is an executive coach, leadership consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She's a expert contributor for The Washington Post's "On Leadership" column, a leadership blogger on Forbes.com, a business body language columnist for "the Market" magazine, and the author of  "THE SILENT LANGUAGE OF LEADERS: How Body Language Can help – or Hurt – How You Lead." To contact Carol about speaking or coaching, call 510-526-172 or email CGoman@CKG.com.

For more information or to view videos, visit Carol's website: www.SilentLanguageOfLeaders.com
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