Resistance to Change: 'The Almond Effect'

When undertaking change initiatives resistance is a common issue. Whether you are re-engineering processes or implementing a new system, the execution can be disrupted by employee resistance, which highlights the importance of a good change manager.

Resistance to change can arise for many reasons, ranging from loss of control to a fear of the unknown. It largely occurs when employees perceive the proposed change as a threat. However, resistance should not always be perceived as negativity because the reactions and emotions associated with it have neuroscientific roots. In other words, the human brain is hard-wired to carry out certain activities and responses that contribute to resistance. For example, our brains naturally respond first with emotion over logic, and resist or fight any threats to survival. Our amygdalae, of which we have 2, are mainly responsible for this. An amygdala is an almond-shaped piece of the brain that triggers the ‘fight or flight’ reaction, and in the workplace they can sometimes get in the way.

This has been highlighted through detailed research of the amygdala. Anne Riches, an internationally recognised leader in translating neuroscientific research, has coined the term “The Almond Effect®”. This is where the amygdalae set off a false alarm, you act without thinking and get it wrong. Anne gives the example of an employee working in a call centre who gets called an idiot by a customer. Their initial response may be to shout “don’t you speak to me like that”, leading to an argument and the customer cancelling their order. The same reaction can occur in change situations, and when a change is proposed the brain kicks in with emotion first over logic, which is where the resistance comes from. The amygdala mainly builds this response from previous experiences of change, for example where job losses occurred, or job roles altered substantially as a result of the change.

However, the reactions that the amygdala create in a change situation can be overcome if they are managed carefully. Here are some useful tips:

  • Firstly, address the emotionally based questions that are triggered. Take time to answer questions and concerns like “we have tried this before and it failed” or “what’s wrong with the old way?”.
  • Help to create the conditions and culture for change by acknowledging that past patterns were ok at the time. At this point clearly explain why the change is needed, and what may happen to the organisation if change is not delivered.
  • Communicate regularly! Repetitive and redundant communications should be used. Once will not be enough, and messages about the change should be sent through multiple channels in a clear and concise way, to increase buy-in.
  • Give particular focus to people and the emotional side of change - don’t simply execute the change and expect people to cope. Reward and recognition can be used for those who have supported the change effort. This will also help embed new patterns and behaviours.

Good change management consultants can also counteract these emotions and problems by using their experience and skills in the processes of change and people management. They know how to develop continuous two way communication, present change in a way that employees can understand, and help businesses prepare for the unexpected. 

This blog has been written by Adam Vibert. Adam is currently carrying out an internship at Greenlight and joined us after completing his Business & Management degree. He is learning the fundamentals behind being a management consultant and has already delivered successful change initiatives both internally and on client site.