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Change: It’s Futile to Resist, and Yet We Do

Change can be exciting and energizing!  You might be thinking... “let’s grow the business!”.  Or, maybe “We should re-locate to the Urban Loop.” Maybe you are thinking about moving to an open space seating concept or upgrading to a new IT system in Q2.    

But hold on...  reality check.  Not everyone thinks this way about change. Change is very tough on us.  It shakes our world.  Let’s think about change from an employee’s perspective, let’s call her “Natalie”.

“Another system upgrade?  Okay... I was just getting used to navigating in this version.”

 

“Our whole department is moving to another building and everyone else is staying here? 
But we work with marketing every day. How is that going to work?”

 

“You need me to lead the project?  I’ve never done that before.”

 

We don’t live in a one-change-at-a time world.  Changes pile on top of one another.  The impact of that can be somewhat overwhelming, and at a minimum can cost us our comfort and perhaps our confidence at work.

Brain Function

Cumulative research shows us that our brain may not help us during disruptions to our normal way of doing things.  Our human biology is kicking in to tell us a story – and often that story is, “Change is dangerous.”  To appreciate the significance of this, let’s look high level at four brain structures and their impact as we experience change.

During change, the brain tells us to be afraid

Attached to major sensory nerves in our body, the amygdala is geared for survival based partially on what we see, smell, hear and sense. If our amygdala interprets those signals as dangerous, it kicks in to a fight, flight or freeze response.  Whether rational or not, our human biology sees change as dangerous and signals us with an “I’m freaking out!” reaction.  Using Natalie as an example, she may be frightened to take on a role as project lead when she’s never done it before.

During change, our mental maps are scrambled

The entorhinal cortex signals “I’m lost!” Think of this structure within the brain’s hippocampus as if it is your internal geographical positioning system (GPS), creating mental maps of both our physical space and our social space.  Poor Natalie is about to have her mental maps erased as her department moves to a new building and she no longer interacts in the same way with her colleagues.

During change, we disrupt habits 

Change disrupts the cluster of neurons in the brain known as the basal ganglia and new neural pathways must be grooved.  Until that happens, our brain is telling us “I don’t know what to do!” Research is showing that repeating a behavior 40 to 50 times is required to create a habit.  What will it take for Natalie to learn to navigate in the upgraded system?  Practice. A lot of it.  She’s reconnecting and strengthening a neural pathway.

During change, the brain tells us we are failing

Researchers are now recognizing the impact of the habenula on decision-making and action.  Our brain releases chemicals in our body that cause us to feel good and rewarded.  But it can also restrict the flow of those chemicals causing the opposite effect – a feeling of failure.  Change is a trigger that creates many opportunities to fail.  The habenula struggles and tells us “I can’t mess up!”

Thriving During Change

The bottom line is that we are wired to resist change.  The overall impact of our human biology during changes personally and professionally can be stress and fatigue.  What can we do as individuals to thrive during change? In the ATW Training session on change we use the work of Dr. Britt Andreatta who offers these tips in her book “Wired to Resist: The Brain Science of Why Change Fails and a New Model for Driving Success”:

Be an active participant in your change journeys.  Learn as much as you can about the change.  Ask questions.  Build a visual roadmap of the journey. Gamify the experience, perhaps with your colleagues.  Ask for help when you need it.

Take care of yourself.  During change and times of stress it is even more important to assure good nutrition, adequate sleep and exercise.

Be mindful. Practice being present, meditate, try yoga.  You are quieting your brain and shrinking the amygdala.

Play. Music. Dance. Sports. Gaming. Picnics and potlucks! Discover what play is to you and assure you tend to this at least once a week. Research shows the huge impact of play on relationships, creativity and innovation, optimism, empathy, healing and more. 

Dealing with change can look much different from individual to individual.  The key is to be intentional with strategies to thrive during change.  Once you’ve dealt with changes personally you can help others deal with it.  Read again next month as we address what you can do to help others manage change more effectively.

Cathy Belmont is Director of Training Operations for ATW Training Solutions in Urbandale.  She can be reached at cathy@atwtraining.com.

ATW has a variety of solutions to help you and your organization thrive during change.  Most recently we’ve added Dr. Britt Andreatta’s The Change Quest Model curriculum.  Contact us to explore the options for employee, manager and senior leader training.


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