Reducing the Pain of Organizational Change

Photo Courtesy of

Photo Courtesy of

"The single biggest reason for 75% of change efforts failing is failure to anticipate & develop strategies to overcome human resistance to change. Most get started wrong. Leaders cause, in early steps, the creation of coalitions of power that slow down or stop change."

Walt McFarland

Organizational leaders often play a key role in change efforts.  Given that responsibility, it's easy to serve as "change cheerleader" and perceive any resistance as unwelcome. I'd like to offer a different perspective.

The human brain strives to maximize certainty and predictability as a central driver of behavior.  In the presence of ambiguity, people fill in knowledge gaps with fear. Even the smallest change can be experienced as a threat and activate the flight or flight response. For example, when taking a step forward and encountering an unexpected surface, have you ever felt a jolt of surprise? It's not physical pain, it's social pain: the pain of encountering the unexpected. Interestingly, though, the brain processes these kinds of social pain in the same way it processes physical pain. We may even recall social pain more vividly than physical pain.

So what do you do with this information, given that the world and everything in it is changing faster and faster? While you may not be able to slow down the pace of change, as a leader there are some things you can do to reduce the pain of organizational change:

Tell the truth...

Affirming shared reality can go a long way toward keeping people on board. Instead of saying "Just get over it" or It's not personal," you can say, "I know how hard this is." Don't minimize, don't sugarcoat. Change is hard at the most fundamental level. 


It's easy to turn change efforts into us/them situations. The reality is leaders find change just as hard as anyone else. The difference is, you might have a little more status, more information, more input. These go a long way toward mitigating the impact. Put yourself in others' shoes and think, "If I was on the receiving end of this change, what would I want?" Chances are, you'd want up-to-date information and a sense of control. 

Give people a sense of control...

Research shows that having a sense of control reduces stress, even if it's illusory. I'm not arguing for giving people an illusory sense of control, but even a little bit of control goes a long way: What options and choices can you genuinely offer? 

Keep people informed...

Remember, in ambiguous situations, fear sets in. Communicating what you know as often and as thoroughly as possible is an integral part of every change effort, not an afterthought. Even if you don't know, tell people. Even if you can't tell people everything, be honest. 

And finally, recognize that people have limits to their capacity to behave well in circumstances of protracted stress.  Not only that, but the long-term effects of chronic stress are severe.  As organizational leaders, think carefully about initiating multiple change efforts too close together in time. If it's absolutely necessary, factor in the significant diminishment of both productivity and well-being.


Arnsten, A. (2008). The mental sketchpad: Why thinking has limits webinar. Yale University.

Chen, Z., Williams, K.D., Fitness, J., & Newton, N.C. (2008).When hurt will not heal: Exploring the capacity to relive social and physical pain. Psychological Science, 19, 789-795. 

Davis, J. Personal communication, 10/10/13.

Hassad, C. (2008). Mindfulness, wellbeing and performance. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1,1-8. 

Lieberman, M., & Eisenberger, N. (2008). The pains and pleasures of social life: A social cognitive neuroscience approach. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1,3-8. 

Radecki, D. (no date), Certainty and autonomy webinar. NeuroLeadership Institute.  

Originally published in Navigating the Territory, Reidy Associates Newsletter, Winter 2014