The Biology Behind Resistance to Change

It’s Not Change Theory. It’s Change Fact.

Does the evidence show a link between biology and resistance to change? What we found was astonishing

Do you prefer the window or the aisle? Chocolate or vanilla? Do you have a favorite parking space or a “reserved” seat at the meeting table? Do you have a set morning routine? And, what happens when these things change, even by a little? Do you feel uncomfortable or unsettled? There’s a reason.

As it turns out, our brains are hardwired to attach to objects, whether they’re tangible or intangible. It’s an instinctual response grounded in our limbic systems  to seek comfort by attaching to, or leaning on, familiar and dependable objects for security. It happens with all people in all societies. Additionally, research shows separation from these attachment objects causes fear, anxiety and uncertainty – dragging down individual performance and productivity.

So, given the implication of this scientific fact, we commissioned an in-depth research study to better understand what happens when people experience change in their jobs, where they’ve created well-worn routines, deep perspectives and meaningful personal bonds.

As noted above, when individuals are confronted with change, it triggers a deep biological response. What we found was this response oftentimes appears as resistance to change. That’s because while this response is biological, it breaches an important intangible agreement – the Psychological Contract between an individual and their organization.

While biology provides the “what,” the domains of neuropsychology, developmental psychology and social psychology explain the “why.” These three areas explain why “we react the way we do” to disruptions in our Psychological Contract. These predictable "whys" of resistance are the knockout punch to countless change initiatives.

Most contemporary change management methodologies minimize the impact of the biological response to change and give only passing attention to the predictable psychological reactions. Instead, they focus on organization, regimen and policy. While beneficial and worthwhile pursuits, they miss the root cause of the resistance that plagues change initiative success. With an understanding of the “what” and the “why,” we have identified the key to successfully managing change resistance – by addressing the root cause head-on.

Unique to each individual, our research uncovered that the root cause can only be addressed by:

  • Defining and utilizing unique transitional objects,
  • Establishing supportive interventions for effectively processing change, and
  • Developing and resetting a revised psychological contract.
Key Terms Defined:
  • A transitional object is an attachment to someone or something within our environment that can provide security throughout a period of change or transition.
  • A psychological contract is an implicit conceptual contract between an individual and the organization which loosely identifies behavioral expectations that specify give and receive between the individual and the organization.

Our research indicates that if organizations make these three priorities in their approach to change, they will meaningfully impact the success rate of their change initiatives.

Organization can do better with change – managing disruption and driving adoption. Our research provides a framework, guided by the three priorities outlined above, that accelerates effective change by supporting people as they progress through change and establish new Psychological Contracts. If thoughtfully considered and implemented, resistance to change can be minimized, team engagement maximized, and change return realized – finally.

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CONTRIBUTORS

Scott Spohn
Partner, DHG Healthcare
Scott.Spohn@dhg.com
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