Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

The “Just Say No!” Part Of Our Brain: The Neuroscience Of Change

Why do people so often respond to change with resistance, negativity, and disruptive behavior?  Why do they often resist…even when the change offers a potentially positive outcome for the business?

Why Team Members Say They Want to Change—But Don’t Do it

All of us find ourselves and some point nodding our head “yes,” but at our inner core we’re loudly shouting “No!”

Have you ever also experienced this team reaction? The afterglow of the off-site teambuilding session burns brightly. Everyone agreed with the new business model in order to survive and expand. We all locked arms and agreed to make it happen—but the aversion to change overcame the dramatic need to change.

Why Do People Resist Change, Even When It’s to Their Advantage?

Why do people so often respond to change with resistance, negativity, and disruptive behavior? Why do they often resist…even when the change offers a potentially positive outcome for the business?

The field of neuroscience shows us that the “set-in-your-ways” resistant behavior we often see all around us is not only to be expected…it’s actually deeply embedded in how the brain works. Advances in brain science technology allow us to track how the brain responds to different thoughts. And what that has shown is that a typical brain reaction to change is simply to try to avoid it.

Your Reason says “Let’s Drive to the New Direction”—But Your Inner GPS is Set to the Old Address

Routine daily activities are controlled by the basal ganglia of the brain. These activities—and the work of the basal ganglia—are very energy efficient. They are almost rote…the brain is on a virtual “auto-pilot”: We can do them almost without thinking. Those habitual activities and habitual ways of doing things are comfortable and feel good to us and are not mentally taxing.

When we are confronted with change, we can no longer perform the new activity through the basal ganglia. We are forced to utilize the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain that uses much more energy. This part of the brain delivers insights to us and provides us with all- important impulse control. But it also has a direct link to the amygdala…the primitive part of the brain that dictates the “fight or flight” response. When the energy-intensive prefrontal cortex goes into over-drive and is over-whelmed by change and newness, the amygdala goes into hyper-drive…resulting in fear, anger, exhaustion, resistance, obstructionism, depression, etc.

That’s what the brain is doing when you… and your team… are in the throes of organizational change.

Here are some tips for managing that change for yourself…and for your team:

1. Make the new feel like the old.
Keep talking about the new initiative. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Talk about the new initiative SO MUCH that it is no longer new anymore. Show how the new plan or new process has much in common with the old, “tried and true” ways of doing things.

2. Get Buy-in and Engagement
If you force a change on a person (including yourself), the reaction is almost always negative. But engage a person in creating the change, and the brain produces neural transmitters like adrenaline that create a natural high. This creates a positive association for the person with the change and all that energy-intensive prefrontal cortex activity. This rush of neural transmitters creates a positive experience, as the brain produces insight. This positive association makes the next change and the next change after that seem less negative and more engaging. You are, in essence, building the “change muscle” of individuals and the entire organization.

3. Keep the Message Simple
You will overload the prefrontal cortex (and trigger that primitive amygdala) if you make your message about change complex. Invest the time to simplify the message. Keep it simple and repeat it frequently!

4. Paint the Vision of the Good NEW Days
Pre-empt the human tendency to romanticize the “good old day” before all these changes were launched and to demonize the bad times of failed change efforts. Create a simple, clear vision of the positive results the change will deliver and what good things people will experience as a result. Then live up to this vision of the “Good NEW Days”!

5. Tell the Truth…If It’s Going to Be Hard….Don’t Say It Will Be Easy.
One of the jobs of the prefrontal cortex is to be vigilant for danger. If you promise an easy path and the path instead is rocky and straight up…the prefrontal cortex begins to look around every corner for deception and danger. And again, that primitive amygdala is lurking and ready to trigger negativity and defensiveness!

6. People Need to Focus in Order to Rewire Their Brains…Help Them Do That!
It takes focused attention to build new brain circuits and connections. Behavioral change is supported by maintaining attention and focus on the desired change. Help people keep focused on the desired change by repeating it, allowing them to experience it in different ways, creating ways for then to interactively engage with it and to see it graphically presented.

Strong credit in this article goes to Leadership Consultant Carol Kinsey Goman, The Effects Of Change On The Brain

Austin, Texas

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Carol Kallendorf, PhD. | (512) 417-9756 

Jack Speer | (512) 417-9428


We value your comments. Please let us know of any suggestions you have for this website, or for technical problems please email

All contents Copyright © 2010-2023 The Delta Associates. All rights reserved.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® MBTI®, is a registered CPP, Inc. FIRO-B™ and CPI 260™ are trademarks of CPP, Inc.

The Delta Associates 360-Degree Assessment™ is a trademark of The Delta Associates.

Keep in touch