Even Managers Sing the Blues About Change

“Even those professionals that really welcome change and are energized by it also find it difficult and stressful to deal with.” –Hank Paulson, former chief executive of Goldman Sachs.

THE PROBLEM: Although some people like making changes, no one likes being changed.

Generally, change management issues focus on employee groups. But what about the managers that are supposed to lead the change efforts? Recent studies show that they often dig in their heels as well.

THE RESEARCH: According to separate articles published recently by the Journal of Marketing and the management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, psychological factors come into play that cause leaders to cover up their mistakes, glorify, and rationalize old but trusted ways of doing things, and close their minds to new methodologies and innovation.

The brain naturally pushes back when told what to do. This is attributed to homeostasis, the movement of organisms toward equilibrium. “It’s really a subconscious process,” said Richard Staelin, business professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “It’s really the way humans go about making decisions.”

And as managers age and have more to protect in the forms of position, credibility and respect, they unconsciously work harder to confirm their prior opinions and ward off risky change. Whether backing off an exuberant young employee, finding fault in the latest training program, or punching radio buttons looking for a familiar tune, they reinforce the tendency to be “stuck in our ways” and close-minded to change.

However, the psychologist Dean Keith Simonton found that the closing of the mind isn’t necessarily due to age. It often relates to how long the person has worked in one discipline. Simonton found that scholars who switch disciplines seem to get their openness rejuvenated.

It’s not chronological age that closes us off to change but “disciplinary” age.

In addition, the neuroscientist Marion Diamond has shown that one of the surest ways to trigger adult neurons to form new connections is to place the organism in a stimulating environment. Maybe companies should explore how all employees should “switch hit” and make big changes in their jobs or careers every few years.


1. The more people are pushed, the more they resist for the sake of resisting. They lose sight of why they resisted in the first place. Instead, invite people to try on new possibilities and to participate in a safe and judgment-free dialogue related to the change.

2. Although people don’t like to be told what to do, they do experience an adrenalin-type rush of neurotransmitters when they figure out how to solve a problem themselves. Many managers are taught to coach employees to discover their own paths to change. They also need this coaching from their higher ups. Also, hiring an executive coach to help illuminate these blocks in thinking and actions can help a manager to stay alert to fresh possibilities.

3. When asked to make a change, ask the person who made the request to describe the desired outcome in observable terms. If you can see the outcome, you are able to activate the creative centers of your brain. It is easier to define solutions, goals, and actions when you have a mental map. On the other hand, if you can’t hold the picture, it’s hard to get on board with new ideas.

4. At the first signs of your own stubbornness or sabotage, you should ask yourself, “What is at stake here, really?” Is it really a bad idea or do I stand the chance of losing credibility, control, or career predictability by accepting this change? Is there any truth to my fears? Remember, it is much easier to rationalize than to be honest with yourself. This is also where a coach can help.

5. Make change a normal function in your company by stressing the learning of new jobs and the frequent shifting of responsibilities (with purpose of course). Do this in the spirit of growth and discovery. Allow people a voice in how their direction is changed. If the brain gets used to change, it will less likely perceive it as a threat.

Hopefully, when managers come to understand their own resistance to change and the pain they feel when change is forced on them, they will become more understanding and tolerant of the difficulties their employees face as well. With this new found compassion, they can discover new ways of working and being together.

Scroll to Top