Human Response to Change

The human response to change is fascinating and unwieldy.

We should not be surprised in the slightest that people respond to change in many different ways or that the same person can have several different methods of reacting to change.

Individuals are as unique as every snowflake and our responses to situations are hugely varied and dynamic. An explanation for this is that we experience the world not as it is, but as we are. Our perception of the world is subjective and created through a series of filters such as; deletion, distortion, and generalisation as highlighted by Bandler and Grindler, co-creators of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

“The brain is our perceptual machinery by which we navigate the world, the stuff from which decisions arise, the material from which imagination is forged.” (David Eagleman: The Brain The Story of You)

Not only that, but our mental and sensory catalogue of memories and experiences influence the actual physical composition of our neural networks and brain. Our brains really are that unique to us! Plato compared our memory to a blank tablet upon which we imprint our experiences of events. Over time our neural networks are built up and reinforced by the repetition of these experiences. Laying down neural pathways are how we learn to walk, ride a bike and drive a car – moving from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence.

As you are reading this, your brain is busy processing the visual images laid out as letters, words, and sentences on this page. Your memory is helping to bring meaning to text as you will have encountered the words before when you’ve read something previously. Your brain is a complicated organ, and while interpreting this post, it is also managing your body as a whole system as an organic being. The brain is a part of your overall nervous system, which is a network of interrelated subsystems that monitor and control your human body. The body seeks to always be in a stable state known as homeostasis. Homeostasis is when your body is functioning in its preferred state such as having your temperature at around 37 degrees Celcius. How you perceive the words on this page, though you are reading them now for the first time, is being subjectively interpreted through what has gone before – your experience. Simultaneously your brain is also controlling the digestion of your last meal and your breathing rate and many other functions.

So what does all of this mean in relation to our human response to change?


Response: Journey of Transition

There are many change model’s that give insights into our human response to change. One such model is ‘the change curve’ the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1969). The model recognises the different stages that a human being will go through in relation to how we process change. Kubler-Ross identifies the stages as; shock, denial, anger/blame, self-blame/bargaining, depression & confusion, acceptance and finally problem-solving. Change is viewed as a journey of transition as the individual moves to a place of accommodating and assimilating the change.

“All change involves the elements of letting go of the past and engaging with a different future; as a result, the patterns she observed offer valuable insights into people facing change.” (Richard Smith, David King, Ranjit Sidhu & Dan Skelsey: Change Manager’s Handbook 2014:9)


Response: Learning Opportunity

“In times of change, those willing to learn and adapt create the new world.” (Toby and Kate McCartney: The NLP Practitioner, A Practitioner’s Toolkit, 2014:15)

NLP is a change model. Which teaches us to listen to and how to use the language of our mind. Our brain is locked away in the darkness that is our human skull. Our brain has no way of interacting directly with the outside world. Instead, it connects with it through our senses (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory and gustatory). Through these, we create internal representations of the world. Our mind then makes sense of that data by coding it, giving it meaning and then storing it for future recall. In this way, our human response to change is moulded, and we are gifted with the chance to learn and make different responses in the future.

There are two parts to our mind – our conscious and unconscious. The easiest way to understand this is that our awareness during our wakening hours is consciousness and when we are deeply asleep we are unconscious. Some describe hearing their unconscious mind as a quiet voice, or a feeling in their stomach (a gut feeling). We use language such as ‘I feel, I see, I sense, It sounds like.’ As a change model, NLP encourages individuals to have an attitude of curiosity, to enable and allow the unconscious mind opportunity to connect with the conscious mind to provide moments of insight and learning that will help to move you towards outcomes you desire.


Response: Resistance

In their book ‘Making Sense of Change Management’ (Cameron & Green 2012) identify five key factors that they believe influence our human response to change. These are; the nature of the change, the consequences of that change, organisational history, the type of individual they are and the person’s individual history. They propose that the scale of change, the impact on the individual and the change management reputation of the organisation all play a part. On a personal level, the individual’s personality, experiences, motivations and emotional intelligence will all come into play.

Resistance to change takes many forms. There can be resistance to the change implementation process, the content and nature of the change, and the perceived and actual consequences of the change. Each of which needs to be understood and addressed. Individuals perception of the change is as we have already learned, highly unique to them. Understanding how people think and feel can unlock a greater understanding of their behaviour in relation to change. Stephen Covey once said that everything is created twice, once in the mind and then again in our outward behaviours. Our behaviour begins with a thought! Taking time to understand this with individuals, will perhaps shed more light on the behaviour we see from them.

The human response to change is as varied as change itself. One approach to supporting people and organisations going through change is to increase their Agility and here is an example of how it can help.

Our world is a place of change at an ever-increasing pace. Industry 4.0 technologies are changing the way we do things, and the work-place is and will, continue to be one of the first and most affected environments of this change. How we think and feel about this change will directly influence our behaviour within the organisations in which we work. It will colour the decisions Boards make, how leaders lead and teams interact.

“The future is coming at us faster and faster; the rate of change is increasing and the amount of change that takes place is increasing and the amount of change that takes place in a given year is skyrocketing as well. So much change has taken place so fast that our governments, businesses and other large organisations haven’t always had enough time to fully catch up.” (David Burstein cited in Sunil Mundra, Enterprise Agility 2018:5)

Sunil Mundra recognises that enterprises need to embrace agility which goes beyond simply being an ‘agile’ organisation. We need to go beyond agile organisations and strive for Enterprise Agility argues Mundra. He identifies six capabilities organisations, and its people need for agility and arguably improved management of change; responsiveness, versatility, flexibility, resilience, innovation, and adaptability.

“The opposite of fragile is something that gets stronger when I exert force or stress on it. In today’s environment – with enormous changes coming from both inside and outside of the organisation – that’s what we think the aspiration should be. That’s what I call agility: when you thrive on change and get stronger and it becomes a source of real competitive advantage.” (Wouter Agthina cited in Sunil Mundra, Enterprise Agility 2018:28)

To all of this Mundra proposes that people and organisations need to address the dimension of change agility by harnessing creativity, courage, and resilience – being prepared to leverage risk and be comfortable with the uncertainty and instability that change often brings. Developing and enhancing these skills within your organisation can be a significant step towards understanding and nurturing our human response to change.

One thing is for certain however, change is constant and is necessary for our survival!

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