Imagine a bear is chasing you. Imagine how frightened you’d be. Your brain would be in overdrive, trying to think of how to stay alive. It would be a harrowing experience, one you would never want to repeat.
Now imagine you are a leader and you own your own business. You’ve just realized in order to stay in business you need to make a radical change to your company, one that doesn’t exactly match the original plan for the business, but is nevertheless crucial to stay alive.
As the leader in the latter scenario you may not think you have anything in common with the person being chased by a bear, but your brain activity would say otherwise, because your brains are reacting in the same exact way.
Our brains have a hard time telling the difference between life-threatening emergencies and the smaller daily stresses. So our natural fight/flight response system kicks into gear when we have to deal with change of some kind.
Change scares people more than death. To drive that point home, 90% of people who have undergone coronary bypass surgery do not change their lifestyle, despite the fact that they have just received the scare of their lives.
So it begs the question: why do we resist change? After all, change is the essence of life. All the cells in your body have changed since you read the last sentence; you will be older by the time you finish reading this article. Change is why you started a business in the first place and how everything that has ever happened has come to be. Yet, once the change becomes the norm we fear any alteration to it. It’s a willful ignorance of how the norm came to be in the first place.
Here’s why we resist: Change creates psychological discomfort.
Brain analysis technology has proven that change activates the prefrontal cortex, which functions like a control center. It receives data, processes it, and determines actions in accordance with our internal goals. It is also connected to the emotional center of our brain (the amygdala, part of the limbic system). This means that when change is approaching, decisions are often steeped in emotion versus logic.
A firestorm of emotions can happen in our heads (fear, anger, depression, fatigue, anxiety) that chemically urge us to fight for the status quo. That fear response can cause impulsive, shortsighted decision-making that impedes performance.
Change is exhausting
We develop habits that become hard to break. Breaking out of our comfort zone requires energy and perseverance, and it can wear you out. Every decision we make from the moment we wake up chips away at our will power. By the time you arrive to the office you’ve already made so many decisions – from what to wear to what to eat to what you’re going to do when you arrive – that you’re already somewhat depleted. Hence why some leaders (Zuckerberg for instance) wear a uniform (jeans and a hoody): it’s one less decision they have to make.
The good news is creating new habits creates new neural pathways for dopamine receptors. So as the new habits become routine they will make you feel good as you maintain them. The dopamine release will begin to counter the effect of the initial exhaustion from having initiated a new pattern in your work life.
Change triggers bias
There are many biases that get triggered once our brains begin to process the prospect of change, but the two most prevalent, painfully obvious – and damaging – are the sunk cost bias and the status quo bias.
If you’re not familiar with the sunk cost bias, it occurs once we’ve sunk our time, effort, and emotion into an activity. Once we’ve made that commitment we are none too eager to let it go. We’ve sunk the time and effort into completing / perfecting the process and the cost of that is we now have attachment to that particular method or thing. Rather than switch gears our inclination is to keep sinking money and more effort into this process because we’ve made that commitment.
The status quo bias causes us to rely on information that represents the current state or on previous choices that created current conditions. This is done at the expense of considering all available information when making a decision. The status quo bias includes the natural tendency to:
- Refrain from action altogether because you’d rather do nothing than make a mistake
- Favor a current routine over new options
- View current conditions favorably because that provides a measure of calm
Here’s 3 things you can change:
1. Recognize Bias
Know that your brain is probably lying to you and making excuses for not wanting to change. It’s natural. It’s normal. It’s inevitable. Pay attention to any fight/flight responses, fear/anxiety, and investigate what is motivating your reactions.
I also recommend gathering folks around you that do not share your sense of dread and also those who do. Getting folks in a room together to walk through the process of change helps pick away at the defenses and biases that are so strongly built to keep us safe. One way to gain insight into your own resistance is to simply ask yourself (or others) some pointed questions:
- What are the benefits for keeping things the way they are?
- How am I limited by keeping things the way they are?
- What’s the worst & best that can happen if we head in this direction?
How you respond to change has a lot to do with how you frame the scenario. Framing a change as an opportunity rather than a threat will go a long way with your resistance to the change.
Get the necessary rest to think with a level head. Sometimes being stuck or resistant is the result of being worn down. Sometimes you literally don’t have the mental energy or rest to make the necessary changes for success. Get some good R&R and come back to the drawing table with a clear and open mind.
Your business (and your gut) is going to be the first thing that tells you whether change is necessary. If you see a drop in sales, in employee engagement, you are plateauing, or getting sick and tired of something or someone, it might be time to question whether some change is necessary.
When you face the prospect of change do your best to keep an open, fearless mind. Be aware of your habitual behaviors and the brain’s attempt to keep you safe.
And most importantly, remember that the bear chasing you is an illusion…hopefully.
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