Change is a constant factor in human history. What is distinctive now is the rate and scale of change. – Robinson 2001
Why do people find it so hard to change, or resist change even when it might be good for them? This week we were delivering a number of leadership programs (with playdoh as we love to have fun) and executive coaching sessions and the number one thing that stood out was the commitment and desire for these people to change, learn and grow! They really want it. Change starts with us.
We are constantly driving and facilitating change, yet research in this area has demonstrated that 70% of change initiatives fail! Why? How can we make change easier and more successful?
The neuroscience of change is an area I am passionate about and in this article, I am going to share with you why understanding our brains is vital to managing and coping with change.
Brains are wired for survival.
Our brain functions as a survival tool by helping us avoid danger. A part of the brain called the amygdala helps monitor our responses and tells us when to run from danger or towards safety. It also tells us when to step towards a benefit or away from a threat.
When change is happening around us in our society, relationships and workplaces, we can feel threatened and that activates our amygdala. We feel outside our comfort zones, triggering fear and anxiety.
While this is good for our safety it does come at a cost. When our brains are in safety mode, protecting us from a perceived threat, they cannot function well as a problem solver or creativity generator. In the workplace, the fear of change causes people to rely on tried and true routines, rather than create new strategies to move forward. In effect, the brain shuts down the part that is really needed at that time.
Basically, the amygdala of your brain has been hijacked and this is not the best time to make an important decision.
So whether you are a caveman running away from the threat of hungry dinosaurs or your boss has just informed you that there are going to be major changes to the department, your brains and bodies will continue to react with the same chemicals and hormones that we need to run away from physical danger. Such is the effect of the threat of change at work.
By understanding how the brain works we can manage change resistance and develop strategies to maximise change potential. Additionally, it gives us insights into how people learn, engage and remember as well as manage emotions.
Brains are lazy.
Considering that our brains weigh around 1.5 kilograms and absorb around 20% of our body’s energy, our brains are energy efficient and actually pretty lazy. Our brains prefer comfy habits as they require a lot less energy. They don’t really like to learn new habits or ways of doing things as this takes effort!
The design of the brain is not always helpful. The part of the brain which is responsible for thinking and high order processing (the pre-frontal cortex) requires a lot more energy to function than does the part of the brain which deals with emotion (limbic system). That means it’s a lot harder for us to cope with change than to return to our tried and true habits.
How can we break habits and form new ones? In his book “The Brain That Changes Itself” Dr. Norman Doidge tells us that the brain can be changed by our thoughts and actions. They physically alter the structure of the brain itself, which in turn changes the way it functions. This is the most important breakthrough in neuroscience in four centuries.
This ability of our brain to change and make new connections, re-wire itself and even grow new brain cells as a result of experience is called “neuroplasticity”. Change is about forming new wiring, habits and behaviours. Yes, we can teach an old dog new tricks!
How can we harness neuroplasticity of change? By tapping into the emotions…
Brains are affected by emotion.
We know that often our behaviour is controlled by emotion rather than common sense. What that tells us is that the limbic system in the brain has some control over the information that is passed onto the cortex, which controls our decision-making system.
In other words, our thoughts and actions are coloured or skewed by the emotion that we are feeling. You’ve heard of rose-coloured glasses, the phenomenon that makes certain things look better than they really are. That’s an example of the limbic system influencing our beliefs and perceptions.
When people are afraid, as they usually are at the thought of change, our limbic systems colour our perceptions with threat and fear. People only see the negative side of change because that is all their brain permits. If the change is brought about for positive reasons, then people will accept it and be ready to involve themselves in making change happen.
Making the brain work for you.
So, we know that our brains are wired for survival, that they are lazy and will take the easiest thought out of there, and that every thought is coloured by emotion. We also know that actions and thoughts can change the physical structure of the brain.
How can we use that knowledge to make the brain lead us towards supporting change rather than running away from it?
There are two key solutions.
First, you can use neuroplasticity to your advantage and provide opportunities for people to develop new thoughts, and practice new actions and behaviours, thereby rewiring the brain.
Second, you can make the limbic system work for you by creating positives around change especially to reinforce behaviour and thought changes.
We need to build organisational change systems that capture the important role of emotions in determining behaviour, particularly in the contexts of engagement, resistance, cooperation, and commitment. What that means in the workplace is that every small step forward needs to be acknowledged.
Change leaders are essentially helping people to develop new connections within their brains. Our role should involve creating opportunities and interventions which give people the chance to trial new behaviours in a safe environment. We should allow them to take the ‘risk’ of doing something uncomfortably new and succeed at it. The more fun we can build into the experience; the more people will become involved in it.
Positive reinforcement is essential to help embed the new thoughts and behaviours and to show the limbic system that this change is nothing to fear. The more often we can encourage people to repeat the new actions, the more comfortable their brains will allow them to feel. When people are comfortable, their high order thought processes resume functioning and their creativity and decision making skills start firing again.
If you are leading change in your organisation you can create the right atmosphere for change by building a safe and positive environment for your team and identifying ways to acknowledge and reward new actions or behaviours.
What is your organisation doing to support its people through change?
Email me your thoughts and insights – or you would like to know more about creating these environments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Sonia McDonald believes we should lead with kindness, from the heart, doing rather than telling and is known for her mantra ‘Just lead’. She leads by example in all these areas and through her one on one practical coaching, leadership training for teams and organizations encourages others to do the same. Sonia has helped hundreds of people on their leadership journey to become the best version of themselves and in turn, inspire and bring out the best in others.
For more than 25 years, Sonia has been on the front lines of HR. She has held leadership positions worldwide and through experience, research and study come to realize what it takes to be a truly great leader.
Sonia has an ability to speak bravely and authentically about her own development as a leader, personal and career challenges in a way which resonates with her audience. She is recognized as a LinkedIn influencer and has become an in-demand keynote speaker, starts important conversations.
She is an award-winning published author and writes regularly for publications such as The Australian, HRD Magazine, Smart Healthy Women and Women’s Business Media. Sonia has become recognized for her commentary around the topic of leadership, developing work-life balance, championing the up and coming leaders of tomorrow and advocating for women in business and male-dominated industries.
Sonia will give you peace of mind when booking a speaker. She is a proven world-class professional speaker with the skills to “rock an audience”. Her energy, empathy, kindness, sensitivity, and humor will enhance any event she appears.