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Change Agent

Tool: Why we resist change

Typical use (type of issue/project)

To consider the value of resistors to a change programme; to obtain their buy-in by viewing the issues from their perspective.

Ease of use rating

Used by

Anyone who is leading change initiatives and considering how to get buy in of stakeholders who are resisting.

Tips for effective use

Notice your own mindset in relation to people who are resisting change. As you use this tool, notice the impact that it has on your state and your approach. Challenge yourself to take a different view.

Signals of successful use

Correctly identifying resistance as opposed to a difference of opinion; Ability to see the value of resistors to a change programme, and to learn from them.

Signals of unsuccessful use

Reacting emotionally to others we perceive as resisting; Inability to reframe resistance in order to harness its value.

Links to other tools

CORE, Transition curve


Why we resist change

What do we mean by resistance? If a colleague says no to you and gives logical reasons for why not, is this resistance? This is a clear response and indicates a difference of opinion not resistance. We may not like this response but there is much more clarity than in instances where there is resistance.

Resistance is the term applied to the perceived behaviour of others who are seen as unwilling to accept influence or change. It is an emotional reaction to an idea or change.

When confronted with resistance we tend to see the person resisting as difficult and entrenched in their position. We do this rather than seeing the resistance as something useful, something we may not have considered. We need to shift our view from power struggle to exploration of differences.

Why do we resist change?

So let’s think about the science of resistance. Here’s what happens when we experience something new or a change.

Change lights up an area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is like the RAM memory of a PC. Like the RAM, its capacity is finite. It can deal comfortably with only a handful of concepts before bumping up against limits. The bump generates discomfort and produces fatigue and even anger.

The prefrontal cortex burns a lot of energy and so the brain prefers to run off its hard drive, known as the basal ganglia, which has a much bigger storage capacity and sips fuel. Most of the time the basal ganglia is running the show. It controls habit-based behaviour that we don’t have to think about i.e. many aspects of our job.

The interplay between the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex helps explain our resistance to proposed changes.

So for example, in the HRBP role often there is a reluctance or resistance to take on the more strategic aspects of the role. Taking a more strategic approach requires the use of the prefrontal cortex because it is doing something new – this uses more energy. It’s much easier to continue doing transactional tasks. This is what is known and uses much less energy.

So when change happens it goes to the prefrontal cortex and the brain automatically goes on alert – potential threat response.

The good news is that the prefrontal cortex is also capable of insight and self-control. It has the ability to be aware of our habitual impulses and to do something about them. The prefrontal cortex is extremely influential in our behaviour – therefore, we can make decisions about how much we want to be influenced by our biology.

What we tend to do when someone is resisting is to explain more to try to convince them. What we need to do is to get them to think about the change for themselves and help them to make connections in their brain.

Let’s think about how resistance can be positive? How can we see those who are resistant (detractors) as positive?

  • See detractors as something useful.
  • They could raise something that hasn’t been considered.
  • Shift our view from power struggle to exploration of differences.
  • Frame as feedback.
  • Detractors may educate you on your weaknesses.
  • Then, you can fortify and bolster your position by addressing the areas they identify.
  • Some detractors convert and become staunch supporters.
  • If others appreciate your efforts, you may become a magnet by virtue of your willingness to meet with critics.
  • Some detractors will respect you for this as well.