Why do people resist change – and how do we get them onboard?

A talk with Anna Tebelius Bodin

What actually happens to us when we are exposed to change? Let’s take a few minutes to understand how we function and how you can get people on board with change.

Anna Tebelius Bodin is an expert on the human brain and on what happens when we are exposed to stress. Anna has a master’s degree from Harvard, has just published her fifth book and is ranked as one of Sweden’s most popular lecturers. She’s also just received the Mensa award for work that identifies and promotes human intelligence.

The world spins quickly, and technological developments occur at rocket speed. Possibilities open up for companies to find new ways of doing business, and to offer services that suit the new situation. Despite this, it’s often difficult to implement changes within companies. Anna explains why: “First, I’d like to say that resistance to change is mainly about inertia and complexity. There are many ingrained patterns and behaviours, especially in a big organisation.”

As humans we’ve have always been occupied with survival: it’s what drives us. Life on the Savanna was about warding off danger and we’ve inherited that behaviour. That paves the way for strong resistance to change. Perhaps the change threatens you, your income, or in the long run your survival? It’s most often unconscious, but the feeling is very real for most people.

On the physiological level, it works like this: in order for the collaboration between the brain’s nerve cells to function, they need to “connect” with each other. The connection happens through electric signals enabled by a chemical reaction, activated by various signal substances that are released in the body. These include dopamine, adrenaline, cortisol, oxytocin and serotonin

Dopamine is released in the frontal section of the brain and creates the capacity to think. It stimulates our reward centre, makes us motivated, excited and makes us want more.

“Today many of us are surrounded by various stimulants which makes it relatively easy to reach a high, ‘top’ level – making a post on social media, seeing a movie or eating sugar are examples of activities that can trigger dopamine.”

In turn, the dopamine triggers adrenaline which makes us energetic and action oriented – we can make changes, exercise and believe in ourselves. We dare to test new things when we release adrenaline. But when we set things in motion, we also inevitably encounter resistance and problems.

“When we meet resistance, cortisol is released, which is our stress hormone. Cortisol makes us feel scared, worried and so forth. Different people react differently to cortisol, which again is connected to survival. When you’re under threat you must protect yourself in some way; duck, fight, ignore or run away from the danger.”

When we feel discomfort, we reach for the dopamine feeling. Sometimes perhaps by ignoring, denying or delaying a difficult conversation or task – avoiding the problem to stay in a better state of mind.

“But it’s not a good strategy in the long run. Your task or your problem won’t disappear, which creates a relapse in the release of cortisol – and a long-term feeling of wellbeing is only achievable by going all the way through the cortisol state. Only then will you come into contact with the next signal substance, which is called oxytocin.”

When oxytocin is released in the body, it creates a pleasant state of calm, trust and safety. The oxytocin is very important in processes of change – without safety and trust, it’s difficult to succeed.

The next stage is for the body to release a substance called serotonin. Serotonin creates feelings such as pride, reward, exhilaration and courage. Courage in turn creates new dopamine, which makes us feel elated and gives us the space to think new thoughts.

“To develop, you must go through all the various stages. If you always seek out short-lived dopamine kicks, you’ll never get to experience the deep, important emotions we get from living through all the stages.”

To motivate a change in behaviour and stimulate new thoughts you need to offer other rewards than a higher salary and monetary benefits.

Anna Tebelius
Writer and expert on the human brain

So how should we think – and act – in order to get people on board with change? Anna has some tips to help us get going:

To motivate a change in behaviour and stimulate new thoughts you need to offer other rewards than a higher salary and monetary benefits. A sense of independence stimulates the ability to think in new ways and feeling involved is key to creating motivation. We want to feel that we are significant, listened to, and that our own input means something for the change we are facing. Active participation and enjoyment tend to go together – and when we enjoy ourselves in a group serotonin is created which makes us feel safe and validated. Development is also central. It’s important to focus on being in a process of development rather than getting fixated on setting goals. Goals are not motivational in themselves, it’s the development itself that gives us energy. Purpose is motivational but it becomes even more powerful if it solves a personally experienced problem. It’s more rewarding to begin with the question of “why?” Why are we doing this? If you start there instead of by listing off what the change involves, you’ll have a greater possibility to get your co-workers onboard.

 Another important point to take away is that our brains have five times as many nerve paths that handle threats than nerve paths that handle rewards. We interpret all impressions as either threat or reward, nothing is neutral – everything we communicate to others is interpreted as either a threat or reward. That’s central to consider when you’re making changes in an organisation.

Four insights from the conversation with Anna Tebelius Bodin

  1. There are physiological explanations behind why change is difficult, but it’s also valuable to look at entrenched patterns and behaviours within the company that can make change difficult to implement.

  2. It’s necessary to offer other rewards than higher salaries in order to inspire. A sense of independence stimulates new thoughts and getting everyone actively involved in the process is key to creating motivation – and well-being – in a team.

  3. It’s important not to get fixated on goals – it’s the process of development that is important and that gives energy.

  4. How we communicate as leaders is of the highest importance, especially with a team facing change – all impressions we get are interpreted by the brain as threat or reward. Nothing is neutral.