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Why people resist change and what leaders can do to mitigate this

There are many reasons why people resist change. Leaders must clearly communicate the reasons behind it for it to be accepted and successful.

The human brain is wired for comfort and certainty. It likes routines, patterns and habits.

Change – like that being experienced by businesses around the world in the aftermath of natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, skills shortages and technology advances – challenges us.

The primitive reptilian part of our brain called the amygdala interprets change as a threat to our safety and control, putting us into fight, flight or freeze mode. Even small or positive change can send people on a spiral of anxiety, confusion, distraction and resistance, which can play out in a host of damaging ways in the workplace.

While you can’t control how your people react, you can influence their response by the way you communicate and lead.

Understanding the basic neuroscience of why people resist change can help you understand how to deal with it in your business. While you can’t control how your people react, you can influence their response by the way you communicate and lead.

Resistance is real


It’s easy to dismiss those who resist change as just choosing to be difficult, particularly if they’re in a well-paid job with good conditions. But in most cases, people resist change for a reason.

In most cases, people resist change for a reason.

In her book Transforming Norm: Leading the Change to a Mentally Healthy Workforce, Tanya Heaney-Voogt outlines eight reasons people resist change. I’ve added a ninth and explained how you can adjust your messaging and leadership to address each one.

They disagree there is a need for change: You need to go harder on explaining the why part of your message. Help people understand why the change is necessary.

They agree on the need for change but not the solution: In addition to explaining why the change is needed, you need to make clear what other options were considered and why this one was landed on.

They resist the sender of the message: You need to focus on building trust with your people, whether you are the sender or someone else is.

They are uncertain of the implications of the change and what it means for them: You need to create more clarity for your team about the who, what, when, where, why and how of the change. Look at the change from their perspective. How does it impact them? What are the benefits to them? What are the downsides?

They fear loss: This is often valid, particularly if the change relates in a tangible loss for them. In this case, you need to deal with the feelings of your people, empathize and support them through their emotional response.

They resist because they can, it’s fun and they’re jaded: This is a real challenge. In these circumstances, setting clear expectations for behavior and holding people to account is vital. Outline what’s OK (feeling the emotion) and what’s not OK (the poor behavior). Be careful about giving too much time to the haters.

They were told, not consulted: Communicate early and often. If they were not consulted for a reason, explain why. For example, if the change had to happen immediately because of a new government regulation, tell them that.

They have ‘change fatigue’ or work overload: Change fatigue is real. Sometimes it’s not the change itself that is the issue, it’s the fact that it’s another change on top of a heavy workload that is the problem. In this case, reset priorities for your team and do what you can to clear the decks and create space. Cut or delay anything that is a ‘nice to do’ rather than ‘have to do’ right now. Beware of bundling too many unrelated changes together.

They have experienced poor change before and don’t trust that it will be done differently this time: Acknowledge the failures of the past, outline the learnings you’ve had and explain how it will be different this time. Don’t simply expect them to take your word for it – back up what you say with action.

One of these reasons is enough for people to rebel against a change, but if you hit on multiple resistance points because your change has been poorly communicated and led, expect high emotion and potential conflict, both of which will slow your change implementation down.

Your change will not be successful unless you steer your people toward acceptance.

Your change will not be successful unless you steer your people toward acceptance. Investing the time up front to get your messaging right and deal with the feelings of your people will almost always save you time by minimizing resistance and people problems later on.

Leah Mether, author of Steer Through the Storm: How to Communicate and Lead Courageously Through Change, is a communication specialist obsessed with making the people part of leadership and work life easier through the development of soft skills. Renowned for engaging style as a trainer, speaker and facilitator, Mether helps leaders and teams shift from knowing to doing and radically improve their effectiveness.


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