In spite of my many years training professionals how to make practical sense of the neuroscientific aspects of human social behaviour during change, I still remember it coming as a bit of a shock, when I first read how offering feedback in the workplace can trigger a similar response to ‘hearing fast footsteps behind you at night’! The rational response to a comparison like this starts with contextualising – isn’t this a bit dramatic? How can a workplace conversation possibly feel close to the fear that you are about to get mugged? But we trivialise at our peril. No change programme intentionally seeks to make things worse, but a high number of large-scale change efforts do fail, with low engagement and poor motivation common (and both examples of resistance), despite all the goodwill and best efforts that go into delivering meaningful and lasting improvements for businesses and their people.

One of the key challenges for traditional managerial approaches to resistance to change is that their focus on ‘overcoming’ or ‘managing’ it inherently implies a conflict that needs to be mitigated or removed completely, like a metaphorical ‘pot-hole’ in the roadmap of change – something that can be tarmacked over or navigated around. But resistance is not uniform, and sometimes does not even have to involve conflict at all, because active resistance can be a positive force when it is fuelled by emotions that demonstrate that people care (and is recognised as such). My recent blogs on personal risk, trust, connection and belonging have previously highlighted the value in challenging traditional perspectives with a heightened awareness of the evolutionary impulses that govern what makes us all ‘tick’. In order to reduce conflict and build healthier, higher performing workplaces, this blog considers the roots of resistance, how it can manifest in the workplace and some strategies we can apply to work intelligently with resistance, including preventing it arising in the first place.

Why do people resist?

It is a fundamental principle of survival we share with all species on Earth, that we are intrinsically motivated to move away from perceived threats and toward perceived rewards. This is an approach (reward) and avoid (threat) response mechanism that allows species of all varieties to stay alive by remembering, in the fastest possible way, what is good and bad in the surrounding environment. The resulting emotions that we experience are directly connected to these survival instincts and the command signals they send from deep within our evolutionary brain. Any positive emotion or reward generally creates positive and reinforcing actions, whereas a negative emotion causes a threat stimulus which leads to avoidance, also called resistance. Put simply, resistance finds it roots in the instinctive, almost reflexive self-protection measures we take at a subconscious level in response to a threat.

It is important to take on board the subconscious element described here, because the traditional idea of ‘managing’ resistance is a lens through which its origins tend to be explained in terms that seem conscious and rational, like worries about job insecurity; frustration about a perceived injustice; a clash of personality; an attitude problem; a power struggle. In fact, the primitive networks of the brain make absolutely no distinction between a primitive threat (like the fear of imminent physical attack) and the kind of more nuanced ‘threat’ that may arise from a relatively harmless-seeming workplace interaction. When we understand that the brain treats threats that prevent social needs being met in the same way that it handles more urgent threats to our survival, then we also understand how a simple exchange can trigger avoidance (resistance) or even other more extreme reactions, if it is perceived in a way that constitutes a threat to the subconscious mind of the individual(s) involved.

Resistance as a positive force

Reimagining the workplace as a place the brain sees brimming with ever-present threats to our survival, where any workplace interaction (even offering feedback) can trigger the ‘fight, freeze or flight’ mechanism, it is almost too overwhelming even to contemplate, let alone experience. And yet, it does offer a logical and constructive explanation for persistently negative staff surveys, high levels of sickness absence, the poor outcomes from change programmes and other poorly performing workforce metrics that get reported by many large organisations. And this can be a good thing, because when everyone in the organisation recognises the roots of resistance as ‘a feature, not a bug’ in all of us, it provides common ground upon which we can begin to deconstruct the barriers that conflict creates and build in their place, working relationships that are more trusting, more connected and more productive.

In contrast to passive resistance (disengagement, working to rule, refusing to take initiative or make decisions), active resistance (constructive criticism, raising concerns, challenging authority and/ or the status quo) can signify both a psychologically safe working culture where people feel safe and empowered to speak up, as well as a positive level of emotional attachment to something people must really care about.

Working intelligently with resistance

Our origin story as a social species stems from our evolutionary need to cooperate in order to survive. From this, we have a deep urge to connect and our social needs matter. Through his work studying the impact of neuroscience on leadership and collaborating with and influencing others, David Rock developed the SCARF model, in which the many ways our social experiences trigger the reward (approach) and threat (avoid) response are organised around the following 5 core social domains:

  • Status – where we feel we are in the pecking order. An actual or perceived drop in status activates the same brain receptors as physical pain, whilst an increase in status generates a greater reward response than monetary increase.
  • Certainty – our ability to predict the future. The more uncertain we feel, the more likely we are to feel threatened.
  • Autonomy – being given a degree of control and independence signals that others believe in us, which builds trust, as opposed to not feeling valued or wanted.
  • Relatedness – we are hardwired to connect with others. So much so that a simple handshake has been shown to release oxytocin (a ‘feel good’ hormone) that generates a ‘bonding’ response.
  • Fairness – is closely linked to the principle of reciprocity and mutual benefit that is essential for cooperation and that sense of community that is part of our evolutionary drive.

At its heart, ‘SCARF’ is a way to understand how trust is won and lost between people. Even well-intended management approaches can create a threat response across many if not all of the 5 domains. A manager who feels like they know the job well may offer lots of feedback that threatens status or takes away people’s sense of control and choice. They may also avoid being too close (relatedness) or transparent (fairness) with staff, for fear of not demonstrating the expected leadership or role-model behaviours. Unintentionally, social “threat” triggers are activated and people end up functioning at far less of their capacity than they could. This is because of a phenomenon known as ‘amygdala hijack’ where, under stress, the brain’s ability for higher functioning (reasoning, problem-solving) is bypassed by neurochemistry that prioritises blood and oxygen to the amygdala (the brain’s threat/ survival response system).

The SCARF model helps provide more accessible insights about complex social triggers, showing people how to collaborate with and influence others more positively and become better colleagues, managers and leaders. Understanding what levers best move people away from their ‘threat state’ and towards their ‘reward state’, is more likely to help make people smarter, more effective, more engaged and more productive in the workplace, more of the time. As David Rock puts it:

“When you work with someone who makes you feel great about yourself, increasing your status; who provides you with really clear expectations, increasing your certainty; who trusts you in a way that creates a human bond between you; and they treat you fairly and you know that they are fair. You’d do anything for them”.

Conversations cost nothing and it’s always good to hear from people – contact me to find out more and book an initial 30-minute call.

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