Leveraging Applied Neuroscience to Overcome Resistance to Change

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Leveraging Applied Neuroscience

Resistance to change is often perceived negatively, but it can actually be a valuable asset for organisations. 

By understanding resistance from an applied neuroscience perspective, we can leverage it to drive positive change. 

Our brains are naturally adaptive, and with intentional, brain-friendly strategies, we can turn resistance into engagement and innovation. 

This blog explores how to harness resistance to change using the amber light, green light approach, which identifies common neurological barriers and provides actionable solutions to overcome them.

Table of Contents

What has resistance to change traditionally meant?

Historically (and frustratingly a lot of the time today), change resistance was / is seen as this immovable force needing to be overcome in order to achieve change success.

An example of this is In 1979 when Kotter and Schlesinger published “Choosing Strategies for Change” in the Harvard Business Review. In it, they proposed six strategies to manage resistance in order of difficulty.

  1. 1.Education and Communication
  2. 2.Participation and Involvement
  3. 3.Facilitation and Support
  4. 4.Negotiation and Agreement
  5. 5.Manipulation and Co-option
  6. 6.Implicit and Explicit coercion.

As you can see, as you go down the list, the strategies become increasingly forceful and less collaborative.

While this approach is clearly outdated, it highlights the negative mindset towards change resistance.

Many change agents even today still view resistance to change as highly problematic, something to be overcome and the fault of the employees rather than acknowledging that the change initiative has been either poorly designed or communicated. 

This perspective fails to recognise the potential benefits of resistance as an opportunity for valuable feedback and engagement in the change process which we will discuss in the next section.

How do we view resistance to change?

We believe the traditional stance on resistance to change is short-sighted and a glass-half-empty approach. 

When people express resistance to change they are actually engaging in the change. 

They are invested enough to consider it and respond. 

This is a good thing.

This engagement provides valuable insights into their concerns, fears, and expectations, which can be leveraged to refine and enhance the change initiative.

With the right mindset, it also gives you the opportunity to recognise poorly communicated or designed change from your end, allowing for necessary adjustments and clearer communication.

Rather than viewing resistance as a barrier, it can be seen as an opportunity for dialogue and improvement. 

By embracing this positive outlook, organisations can turn resistance into a catalyst for more thoughtful and effective change, fostering a collaborative environment where everyone feels heard and valued. 

This perspective transforms resistance into a constructive force that drives innovation and growth.

Before we find solutions to change resistance, we need to change how we perceive it

While change resistance has been a much-debated and written-about concept for over 40 years since Kotter and Schlesinger published their strategies in the Harvard Business Review, applying the lens of applied neuroscience offers a different approach. 

It prompts us to ask critical questions that challenge traditional views and lead to more effective solutions.

Understanding resistance through the neuroscience of change compels us to consider the underlying mechanisms at play in the brain.

  1. 1.Why do people react negatively to change?
  2. 2.What are the neural processes involved? 
  3. 3.How can we leverage this understanding to create more supportive environments for change? 

These questions drive a deeper exploration into the human experience of change and resistance.

For instance, rather than viewing resistance as a purely negative force, we can start to see it as a natural, biological response to uncertainty and disruption. 

Recognising that the brain is wired to seek safety and predictability helps us appreciate why resistance occurs and how we can address it more compassionately.

Questions such as:

  1. 1.What triggers the brain’s threat response during times of change?
  2. 2.How can we create a sense of psychological safety to mitigate these responses?
  3. 3.What role do emotions play in the acceptance or rejection of change?
  4. 4.How can we use positive reinforcement to encourage adaptability?

By reframing resistance in this way, we open up new avenues for managing it. Instead of relying on forceful or coercive strategies, we can adopt approaches that align with the brain’s natural tendencies. 

This includes fostering environments of trust, promoting open communication, and gradually introducing changes to allow the brain to adjust.

Moreover, this perspective encourages leaders to view resistance not as a barrier, but as a form of engagement. 

When employees resist, they are signalling their investment in the process. 

This engagement can provide valuable feedback and insights, enabling leaders to refine their strategies and enhance the overall change initiative.

Ultimately, shifting our perception of resistance to change allows for more innovative and empathetic approaches to change management. 

By asking the right questions and leveraging our understanding of brain-friendly change, we can transform resistance into a powerful driver of positive, lasting change.

So, how do I turn employee resistance into positive change?

First, you’ll need to have a basic understanding of resistance from a neurological perspective. 

Cutting-edge neuroscientist Dr Lisa Felman Barrett notes that “Change is hard because it requires us to break existing patterns of thought and behaviour and establish new ones.” 

But whilst change is hard, remember that our brains aren’t inherently “change-averse”, they’re extremely adaptive and are built to change over our entire lifetime (thanks to neuroplasticity!). 

And with a little understanding of what’s “under the hood” and being intentional about creating brain-friendly, human-centric change experiences by design and not by default, we can help create adaptive change and even foster adaptive cultures. 

Rather than feeling like we’re constantly “fighting resistance”. 

To simplify this, Michelle Teunis, our collaborator in Brain-Friendly Change likes to get change agents to get change agents to use the amber light, green light approach. 

This method helps identify common neurological barriers to change (amber lights) and provides actionable strategies (green lights) to address and overcome them. 

Here are six examples of this approach:

Our brain has a not-so-secret crush on the well-worn comfort of habit. 

So much so, that the brain’s habit centre (called the basal ganglia) reinforces the status quo by creating reward loops for repeated actions. 

This explains resistance to even positive change. Organisations often solidify this too by rewarding established ways (think: norms and culture). 

And habits don’t change by default, they change by design. 

Some of the green lights you can activate for this are: 

Change generally requires new or changed habits, right? So, let’s focus on the “habit loop”.

A habit loop has three elements. 

  • Cue: Is the trigger for the new behaviour or way of doing things, is it clear and easy to do and remember?
  • Response: Do we need to adjust the cue or reward to drive the desired action?
  • Reward: Does the new behaviour or way of working feel beneficial and relevant? 

By making cues easy and rewards clear and beneficial, we can design change that people are less likely to avoid and change that sticks.

Our brains are like savvy investors – they calculate a perceived ROI on change. If the effort feels high and the relevance and reward is unclear, people will likely hit “decline.

Some of the green lights you can activate for this are: 

  • Provide Clarity: Connect change to purpose and relevant outcomes people care about. 
  • Create Effortless Efficiency: Streamline the process. Make it simple, visual, drop the jargon, keep it co-created, and chunked into manageable steps. 
  • Micro-Wins = Macro-Change: Think: sprints, not marathons. Our brains crave progress and prefer to feel achievement now, vs. later, so celebrating the small wins and progress along the way also ensures we don’t let people fall into the “temporal gap”, a gap where apathy and procrastination live (and one that comes up if there is too long a gap between perceived progress).

Our brains are like time travellers – they use past experiences to predict what’s coming next. 

Even if the experience is part of the organisation’s history – people will be wary of the future. 

Some of the green lights you can activate for this are: 

  • Acknowledge the Past: Openly discuss past experiences and their impact. Transparency builds trust and allows for a fresh start.
  • Focus on the Future: Clearly outline the differences between this change and past attempts and co-design a way forward that gives people back a sense of control.

Social norms can at times be a powerful force against change. 

People are more likely to respond in a way that aligns with the norm, of how their leaders respond, how their peers respond, and based on behaviour that’s been rewarded in the past (and what feels safe – think: in-group bias or herd mentality). 

Some of the green lights you can activate for this are: 

  • Visible Leader Support: Coach leaders and sponsors on the importance of the need to actively champion the change, not just endorse it. Their visible support sets the social norm for others.
  • Peer-to-Peer Influence: Leverage social architecture, through peer-chosen change champions (your real influencers) and tapping into natural communities and networks 
  • Celebrate Collective Wins: Recognise and celebrate successes achieved by the entire group during the change process. This reinforces the social value of change.

If there is no alignment across the WHY, the change process itself, and the environment, you’re likely to see cognitive dissonance and resistance. 

Some of the green lights you can activate for this are: 

  • Ensure what leaders (and you as a change practitioner) say, do, the level of support provided, and the way change is facilitated  – all match up. 
  • And most importantly, look to see if things need to be adjusted or mitigated in the environment surrounding the change – to ensure it’s not in conflict with what you’re trying to achieve.

Our brains are very good at constantly scanning for threats. And these potential threats represent a perception of risk. 

Lack of clarity in your change – well that’s the risk that things could be worse, or loss could be involved. And people will hit the brakes! 

Some of the green lights you can activate for this are: 

  • Demystify the Change and Tame Ambiguity through a clear “why” & co-created “how”. 
  • Use techniques like working out loud, visual management boards, co-creation sessions and genuine engagement (multi-way conversations vs broadcasts). 
  • Anticipate the threats and plan for ways to acknowledge and downgrade their importance.

How can I learn more about harnessing change resistance for growth?

Engaging with change resistance is a core element of all of our courses. 

If you’re looking to develop strategic leadership skills, our Agile Change Leadership Certificate will equip you with the tools to turn resistance into a catalyst for growth.

For those focused on implementing effective change processes, our  Agile Change Management Certification provides practical techniques for managing and leveraging resistance.

So whether you are a leader or a change manager, head to our course offerings to see which is the best fit for you or contact us on 1300 959 496 or via our online contact form to speak with a member of our team today!

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