Most people are afraid of change. Here's why.


"Change or perish!"

"We have to reinvent ourselves all the time!"

"They're still doing things the exact same way they did them 5 years ago! Why don't they change?"

"The company is changing directions too often. I find it difficult to plan my work!"

"I'm not so sure..."

These are some of the things you hear often in the context of change. Often it's easier, in fact it's the "correct" thing to recommend others to change and pronounce life-truths like "change or perish". Of course things get slightly more complicated when the discussion moves to your group needing to change or god forbid, you - then we're not so sure, aren't we?

The human brain likes routines/familiarity because it feels safe. It's the conditioning of thousands of years on the human brain and most of our behaviours can be explained by the sabre-toothed tiger that we had to escape from. There are many explanations to this, like how the brain doesn't need to reassess its surroundings for threats if its in familiar conditions. Or how routines and habits are essentially power-saving mechanisms for the brain. There are other explanations like how the ego part of the human self is the automated self: it's always trying to reduce processing power when faced with situations or in conversations so that the stock responses can be used more often.

But changes do happen - many a time it's inadvertent, sometimes it's forced, but change is inevitable. And yet, most people don't willfully subject themselves to change. There are great books and frameworks that tell you about how change can be made easy. But in our work with teams, we have realized there are different reasons for this resistance to change and if we can try to identify the reason, it's easier to address it.

Based on our experience, here are some of the reasons why people are afraid of change:

  1. They actually see no point in the change - this usually happens when a proper case for the change has not been made. It usually needs a combination of a rational and an emotional appeal. Make no mistake - whatever be the context for you, as long as there are humans involved, there are emotions (this gets neglected often in business contexts because you expect people to think and act rationally. You couldn't have been further from the truth).

  2. They see no purpose - we see this as slightly different from not seeing a point in the change. Here, you have attempted to make a case, but it hasn't appealed enough!

  3. They are scared of the unknown - this is the centuries of evolution kicking in. The lizard brain and the fear of the unknown can sometimes even lead to a physiological response like sweating or convulsions in the face of a (seemingly) routine (!) change like moving to a different workstation!

  4. There's too much friction - yes, the change should be made. I understand that I should experiment more if I have to be more innovative but that involves getting an approval to buy that piece of equipment and I'll need to get it registered with the IT team and the Facilities team. I'll also need to justify how much money I'm spending and there's a good chance that my expenses will not be covered! …...Let's do those experiments next quarter.

  5. They want to but are incapable of the change - "The middle management should think like executives, be more strategic. That's how you'll be ready to grow in your career and also take the organization to the next level." Yes, we understand and agree with the purpose, we want to grow, there is no friction in my environment but wait a do I become more strategic? What does it mean? How can I learn to develop this in practice (and not just theory)? Does this sound all too familiar?

  6. They are actually better off staying as they are - while asking someone to change, you should also consider the possibility that the refusal to change could be a well-considered response and it's not just the fear of the unknown, incapability or any of the other reasons we mentioned above. It's very important to not forget about this!

  7. Mr. Status Quo - we believe this is one of the biggest villains of change and it encompasses many of the above reasons. Mr. Status Quo is usually quite well-entrenched and everyone is familiar with him. You don't have to learn any new skills or languages to deal with him. You know what to expect from him. The potential upside with someone new is unproven as compared to what we know we'll get from Mr. Status Quo. Sometimes it's just this affinity with Mr. Status Quo that is the reason for the resistance to change.

If you meet with resistance to a proposed change, it helps to try and identify the reason(s!) for the resistance and address them separately.

We had talked about the human self that contains the ego and the reflexive self. We are a creature of habit because the ego is usually in charge. If you want to be more amenable to change, you have to keep taking that charge away from the ego from time to time. Then it's easier to change. By the way, did you know that the brain finds unexpected pleasures more rewarding than expected ones?

We'll leave you with a life-truth we came across recently- When you're finished with changing, you're finished. So figure out how you can make it work for you.