Our brains find it easier for us to keep doing things the same way. Here’s what to do when you need to get your brain on board with change.
Ever have a great idea for your next product or service that falls flat when you try to roll it out to your team?
Or maybe it’s a change to improve a process that will improve the day-to-day efficiency, except that employees revert back to the old way because it’s familiar and seems easier?
Maybe, like me, you see this tendency in yourself. I started playing tennis six years ago and have committed to improving by having weekly coaching, practice, and playing as often as I can. Recently I have plateaued, and my coach explained that I need to improve my fitness and footwork to keep advancing.
That was four weeks ago and while I have gone for a few more runs, I haven’t done any of the drills he gave me or started on stepping up my HIIT workouts. I am resisting the change to my routine and intensity of training.
As a change management professional, I am acutely aware of my resistance, and what’s worse, I am exceptionally crafty when it comes to rationalizing it. My knowledge of it still doesn’t help me overcome it.
Why? What gets in the way, why don’t we just get on board and make the shift?
It’s the way our brains are wired. The simplified way to explain it: when we do something over and over, our brain develops the neural circuitry that helps to remember it, do it well, and eventually use less conscious brain space to complete the task each time it’s needed. (Ever drive to your office and not remember parts of the journey to get there?)
When we embark on changing that behavior, we have to build brand new neural circuits to complete the new task and override the urge to just do it the old way. The first thing our brain does is resist that need. The reason? It requires resources from the available conscious attention span, usually reserved for immediate tasks at hand or keeping us safe in our environment. (The pandemic has been leasing some of this space in each of us.)
We move through micro-resistance episodes all the time
You probably recognize this type of tension (resistance) on many occasions when you were faced with change. You have likely developed a method to push through this resistance in order to adapt to change as needed. Often the change benefit is obvious, and you use that to push through it.
But what happens when you can’t push through it? When no matter how hard you try you just can’t or don’t want to change at the moment? Even worse, you are on a team at work and facing a change — now what do you do?
There are some practical ways out of this predicament.
1. Recognize that it is completely normal to experience resistance
It is in fact your biology working well to protect you.
2. Gather the right information to help you understand why you need to do this in the first place
To understand the benefits and give you something to positively focus on in the moments of discomfort. (Hint: “because they said it would be better” is not enough!)
3. You need to act
There are two effective ways to get yourself to take action.
The first is the standard way that most people are used to taking action: to convince themselves of the positive impact it will have on them, and to focus on the why. This can generate positive emotion and you can use that to generate action.
The second way is to take action first, and that will generate the positive emotion.
A simple example here is when you’re on a fitness challenge and trying to get out of bed to go to the gym. Using the method in the bullet above and you are too tired, you lack the ability to act. Fatigue will win because we can’t generate the emotion in our half-asleep state by trying to envision what our motivator is.
Taking action first is actually more harmonized with our brain circuitry and breaking it down into smaller actions creates the ability for the action to generate the feeling. The smaller action becomes simply getting out of bed. And when you do you have success. And then the next action is going to the gym. Arrive and you have success. By the time you get inside the gym, it’s pretty easy to work out!
4. Recognition of the small successes is key
That’s what creates the chemistry to keep going (creating a dopamine hit that overrides the stress chemical norepinephrine, that stops you from doing it).
Repeat the above process and you will have successfully changed your behavior and outcome.
“Mood follows action.” — Rich Roll
The process you would follow as a leader/influencer would be adjusted to:
- Accept that people’s instinct is to resist and that it is normal. Resist the urge to label passive resistance as not being on board. People need time to process and get up to speed with what is changing, questions are a good indicator that they are trying to learn more — assume positive intent and stay curious — questions in early stages can sometimes shine a light on planning pieces that have been overlooked.
- Help them move through their resistance. Provide good information on why the change is needed and what the benefits will be so they can convince themselves and stay with the process. Better yet, involve them in the process.
- Recognize when individuals are not moving past their resistance. Check in to see if you can help them to move through the process. Respect that they might have external influences at play. (There will be times when you will encounter active resistors who get entrenched and try to sabotage change efforts. It is critical to have a plan on how you will deal with this and do so in a timely manner.)
- Create opportunities for small wins. Actively acknowledge positive change behavior as you see it in your team and celebrate the wins with your team along the way.
Make sure that if you are applying this to a team of people, you stay with the process and understand that each person has a different pace that they will move through change with.
Assume positive intent and stay curious as you help people overcome resistance.