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Understanding Resistance to Change: Insights from Neuroscience

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"The only constant is change" – Heraclitus. I am reminded of this truth every time I meet with a client. Change frequently lies at the heart of their challenges and stresses.

Why do we fear change so much? Why do leaders feel frustrated when their workforce doesn’t embrace organizational change? Why do we desperately want to control change? Or resist change?

Let’s dive into the compelling world of neuroscience and behavior change to uncover the reasons behind why change is difficult.

Habit Formation: Our brains and bodies love routine. They help us conserve energy by turning repeated actions into habits. So, when faced with change, our brains resist because it disrupts these established patterns.

Fear Response: Change can trigger our brain's fear response and quickly activates our stress response. The unknown can feel like a threat to our safety and well-being, causing us to resist change to protect ourselves.

Loss Aversion: We're wired to avoid losses more than we seek gains. Change often involves letting go of familiar things, triggering a sense of loss, anxiety, worry and resistance.

Cognitive Dissonance: When new information clashes with our existing beliefs and ways of being, it creates a discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. This discomfort drives us to resist change to maintain internal consistency.

Emotional Attachment: We can become emotionally attached to routines, ways of thinking, and ways of relating to the world. This emotional attachment makes us resistant to change, as we fear losing something familiar or comforting.

Let’s normalize it - being wary or resistant of change in the workplace and in life is a normal reaction when being faced with something different.

Understanding these neural mechanisms can help us approach change with more empathy and insight. As leaders, we can support our teams through change by acknowledging their concerns, providing reassurance, and supporting them through the change process.

The bottom line: the next time you encounter resistance to change, remember it's not just about being stubborn or resistant. It's about our brains trying to protect us and maintain stability. By understanding this, we can navigate change with greater understanding and compassion for ourselves and each other.