THE BIOLOGY BEHIND Resistance to Change
Updated: Mar 2
(Originally published on DHG.com, July 2020)
Our brains are hardwired to attach to both tangible and intangible objects. This is an instinctual response grounded in our brain’s limbic system to ‘attach to’ or ‘lean on’ objects within our environment for security.
As we attach to objects, they provide us support. During times of organizational change, this support is crucial. But with most organizational change, modification to attachment items follows. When the attachment changes or the object changes, we enter a biological process where we detach, and then eventually reattach to a new object.
While instinctual, this process is stressful and results in behavior consistent with resistance to change. Many times, the level of resistance is underestimated or unforeseen. That is because while this process is biological, it breeches an important agreement - an unspoken agreement between an individual and their employment organization. This unspoken agreement described by Denise Rousseau (1989) is referred to as a psychological contract.
The psychological contract: an implied or unspoken contract between an individual employee and the organization which loosely identifies behavioral expectations that specifies ‘give and receive’ between the individual and the organization.
Building on the concept of the psychological contract the research identifies that the psychological contract* will magnify the intensity of inadvertent contract breaches that are often the result of workplace change. Change to the psychological contract is a source of stress that threatens an individual’s behavior toward and perception of the workplace. Even small change can represent disruption to the psychological contract and the subsequent loss of an attachment. As the workplace endures more widespread change, past experiences no longer provide information about current appropriate behavior. This can increase workplace ambiguity, increase employee perception of uncertainty, and subsequently contribute to the potential for breach in the psychological contract. Greater degrees of change endanger the organization’s ability to fulfill the relational and/or transactional terms of employee psychological contracts. Change represents loss to some degree, and our fast-thinking brains are incredibly biased against such threats.
Change to the psychological contract is a source of stress that threatens an individual’s behavior toward and perception of the workplace.
The unique lens that is provided by the psychological contract identifies a focus on creating meaningful support and behavioral connection to develop more productive and successful change outcomes. This includes the basic awareness of pivotal psychological theory related to Neuropsychology, Developmental Psychology and Social Psychology. Specific examples in those domain areas include Social Baseline Theory, Attachment Behavior/ Styles, Organizational Commitment and Groupthink as theory that describes the potential for positive or negative impact of the psychological contract on the outcome of organizational change implementation.
Key Terms Defined:
A psychological contract is an implicit conceptual contract between an individual and the organization which loosely identifies behavioral expectations that specify give and receive between the individual and the organization.
We know the origin of resistance to change is biological. To overcome this resistance, you must bypass the symptoms and go the root cause – the breach of the psychological contract.
The resolution of this breach can be proactively supported by accessing psychological theory related to both positive and industrial/organizational psychology.
Shawn Achor (2010) shares that constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and our ability to accomplish goals. Positive psychology behavior defines an approach to organizational change that can support our survival instinct. The transitional space occupied by positive psychology during change will support the temporary breach in contract necessary to release the old contract and support the forward seeking behavior necessary to re-establish a new psychological contract and reinstatement of our attachments.
Similarly, employees may become attracted to transformative leaders who instill confidence in their teams and create enthusiasm for the organization and its common missions (Boga & Ensari, 2009). Additionally, this type of leadership is emblematic of a healthy psychological contract. Leader-centric theories aim to focus on motivation and inspiration of the employees while forming important bonds and ensuring their valuable input is heard throughout the change process (Boga & Ensari, 2009).
As Grady & Grady note (2012), something profound happens at the onset of organizational change when an individual is required to break a connection with a certain object in the organization that they are accustomed to ‘leaning on’ for support. If this broken connection impacts the employees’ psychological contract, a new contract needs to be established. Ultimately, a successful change initiative produces a fully established contract accompanied by new attachments. Achieving such an outcome, however, is no small feat; a host of biologically-rooted, instinctually-driven behaviors and tendencies conspire to resist seemingly the smallest of changes. Change inherently vacates attachments and feelings of security and may threaten the employees‘ psychological contracts. This aggravates our instinctual need to avoid loss and maintain social affiliation. These perceived threats leave us vulnerable to emotional thinking, with less rational patterns of thought, and may further exacerbate the stress we experience.
Reactions to a change initiative may be partly an emotional reaction to the threat of attachment loss but may also result from the perception of insufficient resources to deal with demands. Even when change is not accompanied by risk of loss, the process of adaptation still increases demands upon employees as they learn new procedures, software, or patterns of behavior.
Researchers should consider this biological framework as a broader and more important issue when considering potential antecedents and outcomes of organizational change. It is our hope that organizations and academics alike proceed to adopt a wider, more psychologically focused lens when setting their sights upon the tumultuous dynamics of employees and change.
Change is stressful. Researchers and practitioners alike have dedicated significant effort to identifying components of successful change initiatives but have overlooked a key aspect inspiring employee resistance. Attachments— whether manifested through work group communities, leader-follower dyads, work routines, or psychological contracts— are key to boosting employee resources, investing them in change, and protecting their commitment to the organization.
Attachments — whether manifested through work group communities, leader-follower dyads, work routines, or psychological contracts — are key to boosting employee resources, investing them in change, and protecting their commitment to the organization.
About the Partnership
Charlotte, N.C., December 14, 2020 – Dixon Hughes Goodman (DHG), a U.S. top 20 professional services firm, is pleased to announce that Dr. Victoria Grady has joined DHG Healthcare as Professor-in-Residence. In this role, she will bring the latest evidence-based research and analysis to the DHG Healthcare People and Change practice. Victoria is a professor, researcher, and thought leader in the individual behaviors, cultural catalysts, and organizational markers that leaders can use to scientifically approach change in their organizations. DHG and Victoria have maintained a long relationship, and while serving as the DHG Healthcare Professor-in-Residence, she will separately maintain her academic positions with George Mason University.