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February 20, 2023 | 4 Mins Read

You Encounter Resistance to Change, But Do You Understand It?

February 20, 2023 | 4 Mins Read

You Encounter Resistance to Change, But Do You Understand It?


By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service 

A few weeks ago I spoke to Adam Gloss at McKinstry about the role leaders play in service transformation, and how such an important part of that role is in getting buy-in from team members during what can be pretty tumultuous shifts in how service organizations do business. On last week’s podcast, we had to opportunity to dive a bit deeper into the art of just how leaders manage change – even those that are pretty resistant.

To find out more about some of the science behind managing change, I talked to Dr. Elizabeth Moran, the former Vice President of Global Talent Development at ADP. A clinical psychologist by training, Elizabeth serves as a consultant and executive coach who works with teams from new start-ups to Fortune 500 companies. She also recently published a book, FORWARD: Leading Your Team Through Change, that provides strategies for navigating change based on neuroscience principles. 

As she points out in our conversation, the “people management" aspects of change often take a back seat to the project management component, which can create friction and even undermine the long-term success of a project. Change seems constant and accelerating at most companies, particularly when it comes to digital transformation and the rapid evolution of technology. It can be hard to keep up, and overwhelming to both team members and leaders alike 

This is where her neuroscience approach provides some very helpful guidance, because while we may think we are managing people and projects based on objective data and business goals, our brains (and co-workers’ brains) are reacting in ways that are not necessarily rational or readily apparent. Elizabeth outlines five neuroscience concepts that, when leaders understand and accommodate, can help make these transitions easier and, in turn, make change leadership more successful.  

The first is the threat of uncertainty. When people are uncertain, they get anxious. That ties into the second concept, negativity bias. Our brains are wired to expect the worst when we don't know what's going to happen next. For leaders, the key is to address that uncertainty (let team members ask questions and give them as much information as possible about what the change means for them), and then try to move them back toward a neutral or positive position.

“We started with uncertainty. Now, we're automatically tilted to what's going to go wrong. That's just a way that we are always hardwired to protect ourselves," Elizabeth says. “So, [that is] why it's so important to not only think about what could go wrong in a change and allow your people to talk about it. It's also important to basically think about, ‘Well, what could go right?’" 

The third concept is the switch-cost effect – basically, team members may think the personal cost of change (in learning new technology or processes) is higher than they are willing to pay. How do you deal with this as a manager? Make sure you help people understand what they are being rewarded for, and that they won't be penalized for the extra time (or increased errors) associated with learning a new system. “In this case, what we're looking for is not perfection in somebody doing a task or doing it the exact same way we've done. We're going to reward people for trying something new. And that's a way you can counteract the switch-cost effect," Elizabeth shares.

Balancing Analytic and Empathetic Skills

Elizabeth also explains the difference between the analytic and empathetic networks in our brains. The analytic network is the project management system in our heads that can analyze data and establish schedules. The empathetic network, on the other hand, takes a wider view of things and helps us tune into the verbal and non-verbal cues our colleagues are giving us. “The kicker is when one of those is active, it suppresses the other," she says. “And so hence, when we're very focused on a project in getting something done, we are not able to attend to the human side of change, which is why the best leaders who do this really almost have to specifically imagine they're putting a different hat on."

Finally, the fifth concept is the value of optimism and positivity. This is critical for counteracting the negativity bias mentioned earlier. A good leader helps the team imagine positive outcomes and provides feedback on incremental successes. In scenarios, which have become more and more common, of change fatigue, understanding and embracing the value of optimism is especially important. 

All five of these concepts really point to the critical role of communication in change management. That's more than just announcing a change. Leaders also must be prepared to answer tough questions, reassure team members about how the change will affect them, and admit when they don't have the answers. Using the neuroscience perspective, leaders can better understand that there is always going to be resistance, but that resistance is not a permanent state; providing the right information, feedback, and support helps employees shift their mindset. As Elizabeth puts it, “Resistance is simply concerns that haven't yet been addressed."

Our conversation covered a lot of great tips for managers that are trying to find a better way to address change fatigue and resistance, and the entire episode is well worth a listen! You can find the full podcast here to hear more about these fascinating neuroscience concepts, and how understanding them can help field service leaders be more successful in supporting their teams.