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May 30, 2019

Resisting Change

Eleanor Bruce

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©© Getty Images/mantaphoto

How do you feel about change? Are you the kind of person who actively seeks it out? Or, like many of us, do you often find yourself resisting change?

There’s plenty of research out there on how people react to change. Not to mention several models around how to cope with change and encourage change in others. This information provides a useful framework to help us understand what to expect and some handy suggestions for addressing common challenges.

But change is a complex beast. You probably know just how hard it is, if you’ve ever helped someone through a change (yourself included).

Fear of Change

Resisting change normally comes down to one thing: fear. Specifically, fear of the unknown. Even with the fullest amount of information possible, there are things we can’t predict, and it’s scary.

It's not only the “negative” changes we fear, such as being laid off or facing a health crisis. Even the most exciting changes, the ones we seek out and initiate ourselves are sometimes hard to lean into. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion – happiness and elation to fear and anxiety.  

I bought my first home last year and it was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. And the scariest. I wanted to buy a home, I wanted to move out of my current place, and I wanted to finally decorate my home my way.

But at the same time, I absolutely didn’t want to do any of that. I didn’t want anything to change. In fact, I secretly hoped that the sale might fall through. Then I wouldn’t have to press ahead with one of the biggest changes in my life.

Now, I’m obviously delighted it was successful. I love my new home, and it’s such a massive improvement on my old place. If the change hadn’t happened I would have been miserable.

But there was something so comforting in the certainty of the known. Even the prospect of something better wasn’t as alluring as it should have been. It’s not logical. It’s emotional, and emotions complicate things. And not always in obvious ways.

The Secret Ways We Resist Change

Sometimes we think we’ve accepted change, but resistance can be insidious. I’ve experienced this when I’ve moved jobs, for instance. Yes, I made the physical change to a new role, but I resisted the change in other ways. I held fast to the “old ways” – seemingly inconsequential things that made life more difficult than it needed to be.

Examples include rebelling against new, unfamiliar procedures. At the time I thought I was doing it because the “old way” was better. But now I realize I was very subtly resisting my change in circumstance. My committments to my previous job were so strong and deep-rooted, that I had unconsciously created internal barriers to adopting the career move. 

Resisting change also rears its ugly head when expectations aren’t met. As a silly example, I recently went out for dinner with friends. I’d chosen my meal, and upon ordering, was told it wasn’t available. It threw me off totally. I expected to have a certain meal. Not having it was an unexpected change. Eventually, I ordered something else and got on with life. But for a brief moment, the change knocked me off balance.

Navigating the Complexities of Change

The more I write about this topic and examine my own experiences, the more I realize that it’s a lot more complex than I ever imagined. It’s not just resistance to the “big” changes: change in job, personal circumstances, or health. But I now see that for myself, at least, I resist all changes to some degree.

Sometimes the resistance passes quickly: other times it lingers well beyond its usefulness. I say "usefulness" because resistance to change does have a purpose. It’s trying to keep us safe. It’s priming us, telling us that something potentially risky is afoot and that we should be ready to act.

Of course, that’s not much use if your resistance actively stops you from moving forward or developing. And it can. Resisting change can mean we don’t go for that promotion, or we refuse the help of a new manager who’s trying to support us.

Change Vs. Control

We also dislike change because it often diminishes our sense of control. This again triggers fear.

As an employee, it's frustrating to have your role changed in some way. Even when your manager takes great pains to explain the reasons, you can still feel like you're being controlled like a puppet. This normally applies whether you agree that the change is for the best or not.

You might feel like your manager or the “big bosses” don’t understand the impact the change will have. Or, it can appear they’re just making change for change’s sake. But here’s the big secret – they are likely just as scared as you are, and feel just as helpless.

Change never happens in isolation. There’s a complex web of reasons behind it – changes in the business, changes in the market or changes in expectations.

Perhaps your manager instigated some of these bigger changes. But many of them will have happened outside their sphere of influence too. Plus, just like you, they don’t really know what’s going to happen as a result. They might appear more “pro-change,” but odds are, they’re just as anxious as you.

Managing Resistance to Change

Change management experts typically advise leaders to give their people as much choice and control over a change as possible. In our Expert Interview, Susan Bridges warns that "if you don't manage transition right at the outset, it's going to make the change chaotic." Take practical steps to minimize resistance in your team before the change is implemented.

But while this may help to some degree, the truth is that we will probably still resist. We simply don’t like change.

The reality is that we just have to work through it. Accept that you feel wobbly when a change is imminent and use your emotional intelligence to address the feelings that come up during the change process. Explore all of the emotions, the good and the bad. Also, remember that our brains are tricky things: they love to twist and warp information.

Imagine your boss asks you to train a new employee to take over one of your main tasks. Your boss believes you’re ready to take on something new. But your brain says it’s because you’re doing a rubbish job and can’t be trusted.

You might absolutely hate doing that task and long to get rid of it. Yet, because of the way you’ve interpreted it, you resist the change. Thanks, brain!

Yet, despite all this, humans, in general, are incredibly adaptable to change. We might fight, kicking and screaming at first, but once the change is set in motion, we typically just get on with it.

With some inner work, we can help lower our resistance to change. Developing self-awareness, understanding why we resist change, and what kinds of change trigger us most, is hugely helpful.

Also, consider how to react to changes with empathy. If your organization announces a change in business structure, your first thought is likely to be how it might affect you directly. But what about other people? What will the change mean for them? Sometimes, stepping outside of ourselves and recognizing that others are having to cope with change too, can be an extremely powerful way to manage the fear we feel.

Ultimately, there will always be some resistance to change. It’s a safety mechanism, and one we’d be foolish to throw away. But if we hold on to the idea that we will adapt, eventually, then we can become more compassionate with ourselves. “Yes, I’m scared right now. I know it’s because I don’t know what’s in store. But I’ve been through change before and survived. I can do it again.”

How do you feel about change? Do you resist or embrace it? What kind of resistance do you experience when you’re not ready for change? Share your thoughts and experiences below.

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One comment on “Resisting Change”

  1. Wow loved reading this. I needed to read this at this moment. I have accepted and adopted changes at work not gladly but with understanding the only scenario where I'm failing is at home. At 53 years some days I just cannot bring myself yo get the mood to cook and my family understands and do not expect me to either, it's just me unable to accept the fact of this change in me. Reading this blog helped me. Thank you.

Managers and leaders have been using Mind Tools for over 25 years

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