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Stephen Light

Resistance to change

Learning Stephen Light

People by nature resist change. In this video, Executive Coach Stephen Light shares how David Rock’s ’SCARF Model’ can help you to understand the neuroscience that drives people to interpret change as a threat, and how you can more effective at onboarding people to embrace change.

Stephen Light is a Leadership Expert and Executive Coach at

Having worked with change for a number of years I have found that people by nature, resist change, especially sudden change.

Let’s have a look at a model by David Rock using neuroscience to understand what change is, how people interpret and experience change, the impact it has on them, and how we as a coach or leader, can be more effective at onboarding people to embrace change.

David Rock's SCARF model stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

The overarching principle of our brain is that it scans the environment for threats and rewards. Change is perceived as a threat, and when our brain perceives something as a threat, from a survival point of view, it pumps stress chemicals cortisol and adrenaline into our body and gets us prepared to fight it (I don’t want this change), or run away from it (we’ll just ignore this change and hope it will go away).

If you are leading change, you want instead to create more of a reward state where instead of stress chemicals, people get feel good endorphins like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. These are chemicals that help people feel more engaged and wanting to embrace change.

As a coach or a leader, we are trying to create the heartset and mindset where people can embrace change.

Let’s take a look at some examples using the SCARF Model of the impact change has on people.

STATUS: When people undergo change their status feels threatened. Their job might change or they may lose responsibility

CERTAINTY: When organisations change people feel uncertain. Will I still have a job? Will my friends still have a job?

AUTONOMY: When change is forced on people their choice is taken away. When you take choice away from people they feel micromanaged and will resist.

RELATEDNESS: When change is forced on people they look at you and think, ‘that’s a foe, that’s not a friend of mine, that’s not someone I want to work with.’

FAIRNESS: When change is forced on people and they aren’t engaged or consulted, they will think it is very unfair.

Use your understanding of these impacts to help people embrace change

Here are some examples of how you can adapt the way you onboard people to help them embrace change instead of resisting.

• You can identify certain individuals who have influence and ask them to lead certain parts of the change initiative to boost their STATUS

• From a CERTAINTY point of view, communicating and with people helps them to understand what is going on. In areas where you aren’t able to share too much detail, telling them that creates certainty.

• For AUTONOMY, how can you create more choice. For example, if people have to move offices and have no choice in that, set them up to have a say in how their new office is laid out, where they want to have their desks.

• The more your empathise with people and engage with them, and share that you understand the impact of the change, you become a friend and not a foe and are boosting RELATEDNESS.

• For FAIRNESS, if you communicate and collaborate and consult and engage people around change initiatives and get their buy in, the chances of them embracing it and seeing it as fair is far higher.

The goal of a leader is to win people over and change their heartsets and mindsets about the upcoming change. As a coach, you can help the leaders to know what works and use that to their advantage.

This interview has minor edits for clarity.

Stephen Light is a Leadership Expert and Executive Coach at