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Two Reasons Why People Resist Change

Two Reasons Why People Resist Change

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Why do people resist change, even when it's for their own good? Your own body can work against you. If you know how your body works, you're better prepared to making key changes. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz write about two reasons that work against you, in their article, "The Neuroscience of Leadership", in "strategy+business" magazine.  I've summarized my key learnings in this post. 

Two Reasons Why People Resist Change

  1. Attention effort.
  2. Errors between expectation and actuality.

Attention Effort
Trying to change a hard-wired habit requires a lot of effort, in the form of attention. Your routine activities and tasks are handled by your basal ganglia which don't require conscious thought. When try to switch from a routine activity or task to new approach, it requires your prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex supports higher-level processing. It's your working memory. The problem is, your prefrontal cortex fatigues easily and can only hold a limited set of information "online" at a time.

Habits like how you sell ideas, run a meeting, manage others and communicate are comfortable routines. You could do them blindfolded.  Theses routines are handled by your basal ganglia. It requires a lot of effort in terms of attention to change them. Many people find this feeling uncomfortable.   See Working Memory vs. Routine Activity.

Errors Between Expectation and Actuality
Change triggers "error" responses. An error response is when you perceive a difference between expectation and actuality. Your error responses are generated by your orbital frontal cortex. Your orbital frontal cortex responds to errors in expectations (e.g. you expect something to be sweet, but it tastes salty). It is closely connected to your amygdala. Your amygdala is your fear circuitry. It's where the amygdala hijack happens. The amygdala hijack is the sudden and overwhelming fear or anger response.

The amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex are among the oldest parts of the mammal brain. When they are activated, they draw metabolic energy away from the prefrontal region, which supports higher intellectual functions. You're in fight-or-flight mode.

What this means is that while you're trying to make a change, and you need your higher-level processing (prefrontal region) to make that change, you're busy reacting in your orbital frontal cortex and amygdala, while they are starving your prefrontal region.

Key Take Aways
Here's my key take aways

  • Limit the amount of attention you need to make a change. This could include preparing ahead of time, using checklists, chunking up the learning, ... etc.
  • Find ways to switch from fight-or-flight to thoughtful learning. Controlling your "animal instinct" is an important skill. One way to develop this is a technique from Crucial Conversations called Master My Stories.

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