Brain-savvy change

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Published by
Jan Hills
January 11, 2017

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Is there a leader today who is not involved in a change situation?

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Most leaders have some form of change project or programme going on. With the amount of uncertainty and the challenging economic climate getting projects to work is crucial and yet the statistics on the success of change in business are dire. Something like 70% of change programmes fail or only partially succeed. For leaders that is high risk. In a recent Economist report a lack of buy-in from people was the cause sited as the reason for the failure. The findings from neuroscience on how the brain responds to change are some of the most robust and challenge conventional approaches. The research shows us why change is painful, why it is resisted, and what leaders can do to make change easier and to institute new ways of working.

The brain and change

Leaders tell us that the resistance wilful. At an intellectual level people agree with the proposition. But, people find it hard to make the shift to new ways of working and even when they do for a short while they often revert to their old ways of working after a time and incentives and threats drive resistance underground.

In other words there is no logical reason for people to continue working in the old way. Lets, reflect on our personal experience of change. Have you always embraced change? Have you found it easy? Consider not just organisational change but the personal ones too, like a new exercise regime or a new habit you want to adopt.  We have all failed to make changes, even when logically we know the direction is right.

This resistance begins to make sense when we look at the results of neuroscientific research into how the brain works. Developments in technology have allowed scientists to literally see how the brain deals with change.

The research shows that people’s response to change is common, at a biological level. Change creates a painful experience in the brain. Much like being punched or breaking a bone.

Our brain responds to and encourages us to create patterns, regular ways of doing things. This reduces uncertainty and saves energy. These patterns act as a short cut; you don’t have to work out how to do something like open a door every time. These types of routine or regular activities are run by the basal ganglia which is much more efficient in terms of energy usage. After a period of time, our job becomes one of these regular actions. We get comfortable doing the ‘old’ process and routine. The role is predictable. Doing something different to the norm, is the equivalent of telling the brain something is wrong. This activates the emotional centre, the amygdale which controls our flight or fight response. The new behaviour is registered as an error and as a potential threat in the brain. Whilst the prefrontal cortex can override the more primitive emotional centre this takes a lot of energy and it soon becomes fatigued.

Unfortunately traditional change management approaches are not compatible with this new understanding of the brain’s functioning. Bonuses and incentives or threats of job loss will not overcome the biological reaction to change.

One reason for this is that traditional change management relies on selling the change, usually based on a threat of dire consequences if the change is not made, thing closure of a business site or production line. The other issue is too often leaders adopt a command and control style, simply telling people to adopt the new behaviour. These methods create warning messages in the prefrontal cortex and a threat response in the emotional centre of the brain. When threatened, we tend to avoid or move away from the cause. Hence the behaviour that looks like ignoring or resisting change. The way to get past the threat response is to help people to decide for themselves that the new approach is what they want and provides benefits, brain based rewards for them personally

Increase people’s tolerance for change

Some people seem to handle change better than others, and one theory suggests this is related to the degree of arousal they experience. In a neuroscience context, arousal is determined by the level of the chemical catecholamine. Everyone needs a degree of arousal to get off the sofa and take action. Too little arousal results in lethargy. Too much creates stress, which affects our memory, our ability to focus and creates feelings of panic.

Different people need different amounts of arousal to achieve optimum performance, and it may be that the base level of arousal of people who generally welcome change is lower than those who find change difficult.

Their lower arousal enables them to have a greater tolerance of the stimulus created in the brain when change occurs. Whereas people who already have a high natural state of arousal are “pushed over the edge” by the prospect of the uncertainty that change creates.

And someone’s response will also vary under different circumstances. So an employee who is moving house, whose parent is ill, or whose teenager is leaving home may be less tolerant of change in their workplace.

The solution is not to recruit a team of low-arousal sofa-sitters, but to think about what is going on for individuals.  Instead of labeling people as difficult if they react strongly to change, it makes more sense to work to reduce their arousal.

You can see a summary of this research in the video Reactions to change.

A model for change

At Head Heart + Brain we have been working with leaders in organisations to adopt a brain -savvy approach to change. This uses the findings of neuroscience and applies them to change, thus helping to manage arousal and reactions.

We created the CORE model; it stands for Certainty, Options, Reputation and Equity. Neuroscience has found that these are the areas which are most likely create a threat or reward response in social situations, like work. You can see more about the core model in our video of the same title.

The CORE model

The four areas of human social experience where we experience the threat or reward responses are:

Certainty: our confidence that we know what the future holds

Options: the extent to which we feel we have choices

Reputation: our relative importance to others (our social ranking)

Equity: our sense of fairness

These four elements activate either the “primary reward” or the “primary threat” circuitry of our brains. For example, a perceived threat to our sense of equity activates similar brain networks to a physical threat to ourselves. In the same way, a perceived increase to our reputation activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward.

The reaction happens automatically and instantaneously and triggers our response before we’ve even had a chance to consider it rationally.

You’ll find that threats are flagged up more often than rewards as we apply the CORE model. This is because our brains are wired to prioritise responding to threats because they’re critical to our survival. At work that means we need to offer many more rewards than you might expect in order create a feel-good response to a new initiative. And one threat can undo the benefits of a number of reward offerings.

Using the CORE model: an example

You’re looking at restructuring a department which will mean that staff will have to apply for the newly structured positions. The people involved will experience the changes as threats or rewards in any or all of these four CORE areas.

Moving to a new job can create a threat to someone’s sense of Certainty because they don’t have any experience of that new role, they may not have worked to that line manager before, and they may not be as confident of their abilities in that area.

On the other hand, if they are given some choices about the roles they can apply for, the location they might be working in, or their job structure or title, they might perceive a reward to their Options. Having got the job they may feel their Reputation and their responsibilities within the team have been enhanced. And at the end of the process, even if everyone didn’t get a job in the restructure, if the process was robust and transparent their sense of Equity may be satisfied.

Why do CORE responses matter?

Whether people feel a threat or a reward will have a significant impact on their problem-solving, their decision-making, the amount of stress they experience, as well as collaboration and motivation. Knowing the drivers that cause a threat response enables us to design initiatives to minimise them. Understanding the drivers that can activate a reward response enables us to motivate people more effectively.

In a stable environment there is clearly great value in being able to recognise these many responses, for example using them to light up reward pathways using different methods to the conventional pay rise or promotion.

In times of change, understanding these responses is even more important. When the status quo is disrupted people will be constantly and unconsciously scanning for ways in which they are threatened in all of these CORE areas: they will be the subtext of every team meeting, the subject of every water-cooler conversation. Scanning for and analysing these perceived threats will divert resources from their prefrontal cortex: the part of their brain responsible for planning, decision-making and moderating behaviour. Performance and productivity will suffer as a result, decreasing morale and maximising disruption at a critical time.

If we can move a perceived threat from an unconscious to a conscious level it can be addressed. That may be as simple as a leader giving a categorical assurance of security or continuity, or devising alternative rewards that will compensate for threats.

Overcoming threats

Below are some of the typical threat triggers produced by a change scenario in each of the CORE areas, and the initiatives that may limit the threat or offer alternative rewards: invaluable tools for leaders driving change programmes.


Negative verses positive energy

One feature of change is a need to redirect the energy of the organisation. Many leaders turn to negative energy generation. Indeed, management theory often encourages this with the emphasis on creating a ‘burning platform’ to motivate people to change. Negative emotions like anger, fear, hate and shame, effectively shock people into action by activating their survival instincts.

This focus on a threat will, it’s true, create energy and focus people’s attention. The issue with this strategy is that in this state people lack creativity; energy will burn out quickly and there’s a high risk of unintended side effects such as excessive stress and reduced well-being as well as reduced social connection because people focusing on self-preservation at the expense of working together.

This strategy is particularly unsustainable in the long-term and results in untold potential damage for future change projects. People show resistance to change and won’t buy into new ways of working. Also, once the immediate threat is reduced people will tend to move towards apathy, further reducing growth and creativity. In these states – apathy and threat – leaders will require more discipline, time and personal energy expenditure to keep people focused because there won’t be the mental energy reserves available that people draw on when thinking for themselves.

The alternative strategy, one that is less often seen, is to harness the positive energy of a clear purpose. Companies like Zappos and the fear free or democratic organisations have adopted this approach. The strategy builds enthusiasm for an exciting sense of purpose and involves people in co-creating the future. It taps into positive emotions and the connections between people, and gets them concentrating on the purpose. In this context, purpose relates specifically to why the strategy is important rather than what is to be done or how it is to be done. This understanding activates the brain regions responsible for thinking about ourselves and others, so has a natural link to maximising personal and team efforts when the purpose is co-created.

References

Here are references to the science mentioned in the article

Economist Intelligence Unit (2011). Leaders of change: Companies prepare for a stronger future. The Economist.
Matthew Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger (2008). The pains and pleasures of social life: A social cognitive neuroscience approach. NeuroLeadership Journal 1.
Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli (2006). The ebb and flow of attention in the Human Brain. Natural Neuroscience 9.
Evian Gordon (2000). Integrative neuroscience: Bringing together biological, psychological and clinical models of the human brain. Singapore Harwood Academic Publications.
Caroline Zink, Yunxia Tong, Qiang Chen, Danielle Bassett, Jason Stein and Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg (2008). Know Your Place: Neural Processing of Social Hierarchy in Humans. Neuron 58(2).
Golnaz Tabibnia and Matthew Lieberman (2007). Fairness and Cooperation Are Rewarding: Evidence from Social Cognitive Neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1118.

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