Change: What Has The Brain Got To Do With It?

08/06/2017Change: What Has The Brain Got To Do With It?

By Linda Ray 
Co-founder and Co-director of Neuresource Group

Why do 70% of change initiatives fail? For the most part, the business world has ignored science. According to the management expert Daniel Pink, there is a disconnect between what business does and science tells us. Sadly, businesses continue to use outdated processes developed during the industrial age that science has proven are ineffective and not suited to the intelligence age we now operate in.

In order for any change effort to succeed, we not only need to rewire the brains of the individuals’ involved in the change but also the collective brain of the organisation.

So what are the key insights from neuroscience that might help us with change?

Change = Threat
Many change efforts fail because the need for certainty is not addressed quickly at the onset of the change and throughout the change process.

The brain is organised to minimise threat and maximise reward and this, in turn, guides our behaviour.

Our brains haven’t evolved to keep pace with the rapid change. The oldest part of the brain, the ‘limbic brain’, was designed to keep us safe and to get our body ready to react fast in order to save us from being eaten by predators or other dangers in the environment. Threats to certainty or autonomy or status are treated by the brain as real threats and can generate a threat response in the brain similar to the one generated when your life is actually threatened by a predator.

Going limbic is not great for change. Resources are diverted away from our executive or thinking brain (our pre-frontal cortex) to prepare for fight, flight or freeze. When this happens we are less likely to take risks, try new things, be innovative, or make good assessments about the benefits of a change. No wonder only 30% of change efforts succeed!

This means that the collective brain of the organisation must deal with the individual brains who are, moment by moment, assessing whether the potential rewards of the change are greater than the potential threat caused by the uncertainty of change or the energy required to change.

People are more willing to engage in change when they perceive the reward of change is greater than the perceived threat of the change.

Engaging people in an organisation to shift their mindset really means creating a whole lot of new neural wiring, and the uncertainty this creates can even send the collective brain of the organisation into a threat state. Overcoming this threat state is key for change initiatives to succeed.


Photo courtesy of D-Elfanbaum


Change Hurts
Brains hate change.

Change takes effort, focus, and energy, and the brain like to conserve energy. The brain likes to work in familiar ways and follow predictable patterns. When the default state of the brain is complacency, it can be a challenge to generate the sense of urgency required for successful change plans. Even the word ‘change’ can make some break out in a cold sweat, as certainty and control over familiar contexts is threatened.

The good news is that we can change. It just takes effort and focus to make change stick. In his book The Brain that Changes Itself, showed just how neuroplastic the brain is. Change leaders can support neuroplasticity and change in both the individual and the collective brain of the organisation by ensuring that an attention plan for maintaining momentum for a change process is developed.

Emotions are contagious
Emotions matter and, at an unconscious level, we can sense through very clever specialized neurons called mirror neurons.  Mirror neurons allow us to decode (receive and interpret) facial expressions so we know when people are faking it or not being authentic. If you are charged with leading a change initiative, lead with excitement and enthusiasm. When you are excited about the possibilities of the change the ‘emotional contagion effect’ can make rather than break a change effort.

To summarise:

Change requires a rewiring of both the individual and collective brains of the organisation.
Change creates a threat response in the brain and this needs to be addressed for change efforts to be successful.
The brain doesn’t like change, therefore, the rewards of the change need to be clearly understood and referred to often in order to keep the collective brain of the organisation in responding positively to the change.
Emotions are contagious – find supporters of the change who can spread their positive emotions.



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This article originally appeared in Neuresourcegroup Blog 

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