Opinion

Why do we try to sabotage corporate change?

5 min read

15 January 2018

Despite corporate change being necessary for growth and innovation, we often try to get in its way. It's a phenomenon author Susanne Jacobs seeks to explain.

We live in a VUCA era – short for “volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity”. Whatever business initiative is underway, or about to start, in the hope for increased competitive advantage it is a tough world to navigate. Because whilst corporate change is necessary it does not make it any less painful for all involved.

As corporate change is announced, a myriad of behavioural responses can ensue. From denial and inertia to direct sabotage and withdrawal of labour. Whatever the behaviour, most often, the human response is to resist, slowing the path – the result is increased cost and risk. Even for welcome corporate changes, for those that are excited and motivated to support, stabs of anxiety can hinder performance.

So why, if change is needed, do we often try to get in its way? Why do we prefer the status-quo? Why is change a threat?

We crave reliability, a sense of certainty, and put energy into mitigating ambiguity. Whilst the tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity will differ with individuals, the brain perceives safety when it gets what’s going on and can predict what will happen next. This brain-safe state is trust. We make sense of the world through a process of matching data from our environment, both present and imagined futures, to past experience filed deep in our memory.

This both defines the situation and calculates what is likely to happen next. This non-conscious, micro-second process is designed to motivate us towards safety and away from both physical and psychological threat.

If the brain perceives a threat it prepares our bodies for defence – known as fight or flight. A superb mechanism for immediate danger – not so useful in the face of corporate change.

Change by default is a new future. It cannot be matched to a past experience because there is no file. So our brains will place a threat category on it until it receives one. No file means no match, which means potential harm. Better to get out of the way and ask questions later.

Those with a lot of workplace experience in change, particularly in the same company, can match the current change to a memory file deemed “similar enough”. Based on their memory of this matched file the first response is usually one of three things.

The first is passive resistance to ignore – “yet another one! It will pass by soon enough”. The second is to feel relatively comfortable, “The last change was okay. I learnt quite a bit and I know this company manages it well”. Or finally to catastrophise, “No, not again. The last time was a disaster”. What words do you hear most?

As our brain seeks information to work out what the change means, to establish certainty and remove ambiguity, gossip and rumour shift into overdrive. We listen out for data to understand and then reinforce its message by telling others. Whether the information is correct or not is irrelevant.

If our brain accepts it as real it will reward us with an increased sense of certainty. The certainty may be short lived however as often the story being told is more worrying than reality!

Gossiping is an indication of brains in threat. It is not designed to mitigate ambiguity but to manipulate others. In the face of change it can serve to divide the organisation into “them” and “us”! Usually “them” being leadership. If we can blame “them” we can devolve responsibility. Watch out for “they told us” or “its come from above” – both indications of neurological threat.

Whatever the defence behaviours on display, whilst they inject risk into the business, are normal. Instead of fighting them we need to understand the DRIVERS© of trust to establish brain-safe environments for successful change. Trust speeds everything up, reduces risk and cost and is the true performance currency for change.

Susanne Jacobs, author of DRIVERS (£14.99, Panoma Press)

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