Why Change Is so Hard — and How to Deal with It
Albert is worried. He just learned that his company will be merging with a competitor, which means hundreds of new colleagues. His first thought went to his department: Will the team’s composition remain intact? How will processes be affected, and will the team struggle to accept new leadership yet again? Will they even get along with the new people, and what happens if they don’t?
Albert mulls over these questions on the train ride home, anxious to discuss the situation with his wife, and already planning to look for other opportunities online — just to be on the safe side.
Albert’s situation is hardly unique. According to industry reports, over 90% of organizations are planning to restructure their operations — often in an effort to maintain prominence in the marketplace. Unfortunately, silos in HR and a general lack of people strategies can hamper these efforts and prohibit employees from feeling like they can thrive through change.
All of which raises the question: Why is change so hard? And, relatedly, how can we better prepare ourselves for it?
Why change challenges our brains
Conventional wisdom tells us that we can convince people to be more flexible and less risk-averse. Just tell them to “get on with it” and “stop complaining,” right? But nothing is ever that simple, especially when we are trying to understand how change impacts our brains.
Here’s what’s going on: Our brains have evolved to really like certainty, which stems from our basic drive to survive. We have evolved to predict and control our circumstances because doing so optimizes are the ability to live. When we experience change, our brains can interpret it as a “threat” or as a “challenge” (see figure below).
Researchers have investigated what happens in the brain and body when we experience change, and there seem to be at least two ways the process can occur:
- When we perceive change as a threat it can lead to distress because we experience the demands posed by our environment to be too taxing, and we feel we are being forced to go beyond our limits or capacity to cope.
This is when we experience detrimental effects, or distress. Our hearts beat faster, and vascular resistance makes it harder to push blood through our circulatory system. In other words, our physiological resources are not efficiently mobilized.
We also are likely to experience negative emotions like feeling anxious or frustrated. Thoughts like “I can’t do that” go through our minds, causing us to feel stuck in the current situation without an apparent solution.
- However, when we experience change as a challenge, for example, as an interesting opportunity to learn or do something new, this is when we are more likely to experience eustress because the new environmental demands seem within our abilities and limits.
During eustress, our bodies also respond efficiently. Our hearts still beat faster, but now with a decrease in vascular resistance, meaning blood can flow throughout the circulatory system with greater ease. We either feel more positive or at the very least, less bad in the face of the change we are experiencing.
The bottom line: Whether you perceive significant change moments in your life as a threat or as a challenge greatly alters your emotional, physical, and mental experiences.
Guide your mind in the right direction
It turns out that it’s possible to shift how we experience difficult change moments through our mindsets.
In general, mindsets reflect how we see things, and they impact both our beliefs and our behaviors. (Interestingly, our behaviors impact our mindsets, too, so by practicing specific actions we can help shift our mindsets to be more agile in the face of change.) In this way, mindsets are almost like a muscle that can be trained. And at NLI, we help clients train that muscle around a crucial question:
Do you believe that your, and other people’s traits and abilities, are continuously developing and can change?
If you answered “yes” then you likely have a belief that developing your skills is possible, which means you are more likely to find yourself having a growth mindset. A growth mindset is one that helps us see skills as capable of improvement. It allows us to see gaps in our knowledge as opportunities to learn something new. And when we have a growth mindset, we are therefore more prepared to experience the change moment as a challenge, rather than a threat.
If you answered “no” to the above question, meaning you believe that you and other people cannot easily change or grow capacities, you may often experience a more fixed mindset.
You may also believe that people are innately gifted in some ways but not in other ways. The consequences of fixed mindset thinking can make it more likely for you to experience change as a threat, in part because rather than try to adapt to or embrace change, you may shut down or become avoidant. This type of response can make change moments even harder to manage or overcome.
Developing a growth mindset
The good news is that it’s possible to develop a growth mindset that will help you persist and thrive through change. Below we’ve listed a handful of strategies to get started on your own growth-mindset journey:
- Try reframing your thinking to view change as a challenge, not a threat
- Celebrate moments of progress during the change — including baby steps
- Give yourself permission to start experimenting along the way
- Learn from peers who seem to model the growth mindset well
- Look for ways to lead by example, even if you aren’t always confident
Now let’s revisit Albert’s dilemma. How can he think about his company’s merger and his own response to it? Well, for one, his thinking will depend on his beliefs about his own and his team’s ability to succeed in the new situation.
If Albert wants to stay at his current company, he would be well advised to embrace a growth mindset with the advice we offered above, rather than to simply give up. With any luck, Albert’s team will see him modeling a growth mindset and begin taking steps of their own. As the research shows, an organization’s growth mindset requires all hands on deck from leadership. In other words, Albert may succeed on his own, but it takes widespread and ongoing support for his mindset to leave the biggest impact.