Leading change is one of the most challenging parts of the leadership role. We humans aren’t always keen on changing the behaviours that we’ve become comfortable with so why would we do it just because our leader wants us to?  Well, in many cases we wouldn’t.  Or we’d do it ‘on the surface’ but lapse into our old habits when no one was looking.

What holds us back is our brain’s reaction to change. The neural networks which recognise and react to threat are stimulated and we resist change because we are focused on potential danger.
That’s where an understanding of neuroscience can be a help. Leading change is much easier if you understand this reaction and know how to minimise the threat response and bring out the reward response instead.

Let me show you a model of change management through a neuroscience lens.

This is the Change Model


Capture attention:

The idea of change has thrown the brain into a spin where all it can see are threats. When it’s in that state, the frontal regions, where all the problem solving and creativity happens, just can’t function properly. Before you can take a step towards change you need to capture their attention and break the cycle of negative thinking.  So, do something different – get out of the office, have a special lunch or design some joint activity. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you interrupt the pattern they’ve set up in their brains.


Harness understanding:

If you want people’s brains to focus on the positive path, you need to stimulate the perception of reward. Often simply being given the whole picture is enough to kick off each individuals understanding of the change.  They need the ‘why’ of change before they will accept it, but they also need to know what’s in it for them. What is the reward at the end of it all? As leader, your role is to show the business related rewards, but also think about the more personal rewards your team will experience. When you focus on rewards, the pre-frontal cortex is stimulated so your team will begin to focus on actions, plans and strategies. Things start falling into place for them.

Assess current patterns:

You can’t introduce change without considering where you are at the moment and to do this properly, with full commitment from your team, they need to be involved. Your team members need to own the change that they need to make before they will be willing or able to change their processes. When they don’t feel involved in the process, they emotionally disengage which also turns off their reward/action focused thinking. You’ll find that your team will produce a more honest and accurate picture of your current position than you can do alone – and they will do it without seeing the process as a threat to their self-esteem.

Negotiate new behaviour:

Ownership of the process is a critical part of success, so the team must be included in designing the processes they are going to adopt.  The good thing is that when they focus their attention on the new behaviours, it reinforces new connections within the brain which help the actions settle in as habits.  Their motivation is now towards the rewards that they themselves are designing.

Generate the action:

Now your team knows what to do. It’s up to you to model the behaviour you expect. You will soon notice your team members mirroring your behaviour. An Italian study found that mirror neurons in our brains appear to let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions. Your team will pick up not just your actions, but also your reasons for making them. Once again, the more they imitate you and adopt the new behaviours or actions, the more firmly the new connections in the brain are wired.


Embed the change:

By introducing change in this cooperative way, you are working with the human brain rather than against it, and helping your team members make changes without feeling threatened. You have built a safe environment for them in which to explore and experience change. To help embed the change, all you need to do now is keep up the positive reinforcement which is so important for maintaining the feeling of safety and security. A simple pat on the back is enough to keep motivation high and ideas flowing.

Make change an exciting experience rather than a terrifying one.
If you are leading a change process at the moment, you can set your team up for success, and a virtually stress-free transformation just by working with the brain, not against it.

Need help embedding the change in your organisation? Get in touch with the leaders in leadership at LeadershipHQ.

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