“What causes resistance to change”


Didier Marlier

November 15, 2009

From Disruption to Engagement

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I recently met a solid leader, deeply engaged in a post acquisition integration project. As usual, the project management part of the process was well thought of and under control. However, he was concerned with a more subtle part of the integration: How to ensure that the biggest asset targeted in the acquisition, people, their experience, passion and intelligence wouldn’t be lost?

The leader showed a profound knowledge of what drives human beings. His priority was to show respect to the people of the acquired organization. He knew this would be fundamental in retaining their loyalty.

Our long experience in accompanying changes in organizations (being caused by a new strategy, the need for a new culture, reorganization or the aftermaths of a merger/acquisition) proves him right. The works of US neurobiologist Paul McLean, French neurologist and philosopher Henri Laborit or a recent article of David Rock (“managing with the brain in mind” http://www.strategy-business.com/article/09306?gko=5df7f) all converge to describe the following simplification of what takes place in the human brain in case of change:

The Reptilian Brain constantly scrutinizes our environment for potential threats. The most powerful amongst them are for our:

  • Survival: for our ancestors, being alive by the end of the day was far from granted. In today’s office world, threat to my survival is directly linked to my job. In the case of a merger, what will happen to my job, is the first threat our reptilian brain will scrutinize the environment for
  • Territory: in the old days, territory was a guarantee of food and shelter. Today, this is linked to my ego, my status, my pride. Will I loose status, will I be “degraded” by the new structure, What will I tell my wife and children about my new stature in the new organization are the most powerful drive in our reptilian brain during a merger or change
  • Habits: David Rock in another paper (“The Neuroscience of Leadership) explains why, physiologically our body hates change. When something new has to be evaluated, understood and “digested” it is the (prefrontal) Cortex of our brain which gets activated, whereas when we are into “business as usual mode” it is the “basal ganglia” part (where routine and familiar activities are stored) that works. The big difference is that the Cortex when working consumes far more energy than the “standby” basal ganglia. Our body therefore prefers the later to the first.

When the Reptilian Brain triggers a warning that our survival, territory and/or habits may be at risk, another part of our brain is activated:

The Limbic Brain is the emotional centre of our brain and it responds to perceived threats by defence mechanisms which can be summarized under

  • Fight: Arguing, disagreeing, gossiping, badmouthing, sabotaging are some of the manifestation of the Fight mechanism
  • Flight: is far more difficult to spot. People will pretend, play games and politics, will claim to be on board when they are already activating their network of friends and head hunters
  • Freeze: doesn’t last as long and is a state of shock… People just can’t believe this is happening and are helpless and reactionless…

The worse hasn’t happened yet. When the defence mechanism kicks-in, our brain produces a hormone (cortisol) which literally switches-off…:

The New Cortex, which is rather annoying as this is where our capacities for being rational, creative, entrepreneurial or take measured risks are located. In other terms, if people feel threatened in relation to their survival, territory or habits, I can forget about demanding them to be rational, creative and reasonable! They will be exclusively driven by a reactive and defensive attitude.

The C.E.O. of a French bank knew this when he was asked, years ago to help merge two very different organizations. He therefore decided to work the merger through the three agendas (logos/intellectual, ethos/Behavioural and pathos/emotional):

  • He rapidly gathered the top 150 leaders of the two entities in order to co-create clarity and ownership on the new organizational/strategic agenda
  • He ensured his management team was going to display behaviours which would spectacularly demonstrate a “Walk the Talk” attitude
  • He spent sizeable amount of time with the people to create the right emotional agenda, displaying respect and care to his people

Those of you who would like to deepen the topic will find more details on pages 76 to 120 of our book, “Engaging Leadership” (Didier Marlier & Chris Parker). Your comments are as always welcome.

Quiet week at home and looking forward to an inspiring and fascinating working day around the theme “Leading in the Open Source Economy” with Futurist Gerd Leonhard. Have a great week all!


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“Engaging Leadership” has been written for leaders who are about to engage their organisations in change."

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