Our aim with this article is to share with you our experience combined with the latest findings from neuroscience about what we can predict about behavioural responses to change and how we can plan to minimise the perceived threat to people. Whilst we aim to keep it brief we also want it to be of value, so you may wish to print this off and read it at leisure.
What is Science telling us about our Brains and Change?
In 1996 John Kotter in his book ‘Leading Change’ identified that up to 70% of change initiatives were failing. In 2015 McKinsey & Co confirmed in their article ‘The Irrational Side of Change Management’ that these percentages have not decreased.
20 years on we now have scientific evidence about how our brains respond to change and we can draw on this information to help us manage the human side of change more effectively.
In this article we offer 1 Fact and 3 insights to help us with change and 4 tips on practical strategies to increase the chances of change being successfully adopted.
Our brains crave certainty and predictability and we have a social need for control. They scan the environment every 5 seconds and any change is signalled to the brain as a difference and any difference is usually perceived as something to be concerned about.
Our brains seek efficiency. We create habits and routines to help us run our lives and minimise the need for too much thinking. A part of our brain called the basal ganglia stores these routines and habits and they work well for us when we have certainty and predictability. Introduce change into our environment and the routines and habits which have served us so well are now no longer so effective.
Think about a time when you upgraded your computer software and the icon for an action you undertook regularly moved to a different location. How many times did you go to the same place (your habit) even though you knew there had been a change? How much more thinking did you have to do to stop the old habit and replace it with the new information? How much more concentration did you now need to complete that same task?
Add into this mix the fact that we, as humans, have a fundamental need to feel in control, and change often makes us feel out of control and vulnerable. With our new knowledge about the brain, we can target our approach to help people deal with the challenge of change.
If we can help people develop some certainty about how change affects our brains and enable them to understand that there are some things we can predict, then we give them more control over their responses and greater ability to deal with change. Personal insights along with practical strategies provide certainty and build change readiness.
Insight 1 – Change really can be Hard
Being wary of change is a perfectly normal reaction to being faced with something different.
In order to survive, our brains adapted to default to the negative (Ray Baumeister, University of Florida ‘Bad is Stronger than Good’) and when you think about it, we have evolved from the most negative people that ever roamed this earth! So what happens in the brain?
Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) – often labelled as the CEO of the brain, the PFC performs many of the executive rational functions such as analysis, evaluation, decision-making and planning. It is the most energy-hungry part of our brain consuming large amounts of glucose and oxygen. When we overload the PFC with details about a new change, its connection with the amygdala comes into play and sets off an emotional reaction.
Amygdala – our fight, flight and freeze response is generated in the amygdala, the emotion centre of the brain. When faced with unplanned or complex change, it activates to keep us safe, but it can overreact and send us into negative stress. Reactions such as denial, anger or depression are early reactions to change typical of emotional activity in the amygdala.
Basal ganglia (BG) – the basal ganglia are the habit centres of the brain where automated responses reside. These are highly efficient and require fewer mentally draining resources than the PFC. When we learn something new or are required to make a change, the Basal Ganglia are trying to ‘pull us back’ to the status quo as the PFC tires from trying to make new neural connections to support the required change. This is why for example, stopping smoking and creating new eating and exercise regimes are often so difficult to maintain.
Insight 2 – No matter how exciting change is, people experience a sense of Loss, Confusion and Ambiguity
When faced with change, people tend to focus more on what they have to give up and lose rather than what there is to gain. Change is perceived as “the end of the way we used to do things round here” and any sense of balance or objectivity is often lost.
Change requires adapting to something new and this creates a sense of uncertainty and confusion. Organisational change often brings more questions than answers and impacts our ability to think clearly. Our amygdala is literally hijacking the PFC and they work almost in mutual exclusivity of each other so, when we’re emotional, we’re not capable of being rational.
A sense of loss and confusion can lead to a deterioration of trust and a heightened sense of greater self-preservation. As we lose confidence in our skills and abilities, we start to question motives, information and other people. As our trust diminishes, we survive by ‘looking after number one’.
Insight 3 – Adjustment to Change takes Time
We can’t flick a switch in our brains and make them adapt to change. Our brains need to be able to understand why the change is necessary, what is required and how we will be able to make the transition from the old way of working to the new. We can speed up this process and allow individuals to take more control of their journey through change by following these tips:
Tip 1 – Normalise Responses to Change – We can reduce the ‘threat level’ around change by helping people understand how change affects our brains and that it is OK and completely normal to feel a whole raft of emotions during the change process.
We can give people time to assimilate the new change and create new habits. Repetition is one of the easiest ways to do this, yet often we train people once, then after a significant time lag, we just expect them to remember and practise the new ways. We can reward demonstration of new change behaviours with positive feedback and praise.
Tip 2 – Hypercommunicate and Involve – Our brains seek closure and if there is a gap in information, the brain will fill it. Leaving people with too little information can create vacuums and these are often a source of angst and speculation, resulting in rumour.
Communicate often and help people see what is changing and even more importantly, what is staying the same. When we are feeling under threat and focusing on what there is to lose, it’s important to see what is still the same, so asking people to identify ‘what’s not changing’ allows them to put the change into perspective, calm down, return to balance and think more clearly.
Involving people in the change increases their sense of control and that in itself can reduce the sense of threat.
Tip 3 – Honour and Embrace Different Views – With the additional pressures faced by management in times of rapid change, it can be easy to rebel against the resistors of change, to consider them as the bane of our life. What if we adopted a different approach and involved them equally in the change?
With many change management methodologies, often only advocates of change are invited to be on the rollout team. What if we were to include people of all opinions? An overly optimistic approach can result in the oversight of real anticipated problems and when we elicit these from our ‘nay sayers’ we are again facilitating inclusion and accountability.
Tip 4 – Tap into the Power of Stories – Storytelling is a long undervalued leadership skill and people want to feel included in the ‘where we came from, where we are now, and where we are going’ narrative. Stories allow our brain to make meaning of information from both a rational and emotional perspective and is perceived less like we’re being told what to do and more that we’re being invited into a conversation.
If we can create a compelling and inspiring story about the need for change that is NOT a burning platform (the burning platform approach elevates the threat response), one that paints a clear picture of the road ahead, a vision that most if not all, can buy into and a reinforcement of a common goal and sense of purpose, then we have a greater chance of bringing our people along with us.
Leaders who can use the power of story, can share their own experiences of success and failure, being honest about their own experiences of dealing with change. If they develop the ability to capture the hearts and minds of their people, they can potentially accelerate the change process.
Change is messy, complex, unsettling and disruptive. It can also be exciting, invigorating, and possibly a little less stressful when we invest in the human side of guiding people through it.
If we can use our knowledge of the brain then we can ensure that our people feel listened to, respected, acknowledged and validated – all the emotions that are prized when going through challenging times.
What difference could it make for a manager who has the reputation of saying“build a bridge and get over it” to approach those concerned with the change and sit down and actively listen to them and with empathy?