Written by Kate Billing, Co-founder & Thought Leader, Blacksmith

“Why are our people so resistant to change?” is the catch cry in any organisation trying to implement a change or transformation agenda.

Mt Eliza Business School in Melbourne has found that 70% of change initiatives fail due to people resistance [1] whilst, according to HBR [2], organisational behavioural experts Kenneth Thompson and Fred Luthans noted almost 25 years ago that a person’s reaction to organisational change “can be so excessive and immediate, that some researchers have suggested it may be easier to start a completely new organisation than to try to change an existing one.”

So what’s going on? Human beings being human. End of story.

We are evolutionarily adapted and primed for threat. Our dear old brain treats the involuntary change in our modern workplace as the same level as a threat to our physical survival back in our primal days.  In response to any threat our brain releases a neurochemical cocktail that activates the fight, flight or play dead response deep in the oldest parts of our brains, prompting our bodies to go into overdrive, ready to phsycially respond with our preferred mitigation strategy.

Next comes the social and emotional response, again hardwired into our humanness by our social dependency on each other for survival early in our evolution. Human beings don’t do well on their own in the wild and anything that our mind perceives as a threat to our social connection to those upon whom we depend for that connection kicks off this secondary response. The emotional and social pain of potential social disconnection is as acute as physical pain and is not to be underestimated in its behavioural impact.

Dr. David Rock, renowned neuroscience researcher and author, talked with over 30 researchers about their findings in this area of study and coalesced his insights into a model that helps us make sense of the human resistance to change – the S.C.A.R.F Model. [3]

SCARF stands for Status, Credibility, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

In these five simple words lies rich insight for leaders of change, as they relate to people’s experience and the potential impact of change at home and at work:

  • Status – Our hardwired social need for esteem and respect, and about our importance to others e.g. “Will I lose my influence/high paying job/team/corner office/job title?”
  • Certainty – Our ability to predict what will happen next. When a situation is unfamilliar, trying to make sense of it takes more neural energy e.g. “What exactly does this mean for me/my team/our future?”
  • Automony – Our sense of control over events and the opportunity to make choices e.g. “What level of control or input do I have into this?”
  • Relatedness – The level of comfort and safety we feel with others e.g. “What about my friends/family?”; and
  • Fairness – A perception of fair exchanges between people e.g. “This isn’t fair!”

This framework can help guide leaders in their approach to supporting their people through change:

  • Status – practice compassion and appreciate their experience
  • Certainty – focus people on what is certain, be open about what you’re uncertain about yourself or can’t be known yet, be transparent and communicate often
  • Autonomy – involve people in job shaping, genuinely informing the change agenda and giving control over things in their day to day reality of the change in order to create authorship
  • Relatedness – listen, empathise and ensure they have support at home and at work – continue to focus on building social bonds and trust
  • Fairness – acknowledge emotions, don’t shy away from issues and ensure equal sharing of information.

Although humans actually love change and create plenty of it voluntarily in our own lives (think fashion, cars, hairstyles, holiday destinations and restaurants), we resist BEING changed. Acknowledging our humanness and our inbuilt wiring in the face of change being put upon us, is a critically important part of more successfully leading change.



[1] My Entrepreneur Magazine “Why we believe in supporting people to be change ready” by Tara Jacobsen-Neven, 30 November 2015

[2] Harvard Business Review “This is your brain on organisational change” by Walter McFarland, 16 October 2012

[3] “Your Brain at Work: strategies for overcoming distraction, regaining focus and working smarter all day long” by David Rock, 9 October 2009