Your Brain on Change

This Is Your Brain
on Change

Three tips for using neuroscience
for better change management.

Do you wish you could read someone’s mind? If you’ve ever led an organizational change, you’ve probably wanted to know exactly what your stakeholders are thinking. As far as I know, mind-reading technology is not yet available to us. Thankfully, we do have the next best thing: neuroscience, the scientific study of the human nervous system. This ever-growing field continues to expand our understanding of the brain and provide insights into how humans think, feel, and behave. Given its focus, it’s no surprise that neuroscience is now being applied to change management.

The following insights and accompanying tips won’t make you a mind reader, but they may help you become a mind translator—someone who understands what the brain thinks when faced with change and knows how to work with the brain to better facilitate change in an organization.

People are rational—and emotional—and impulsive.

OK, quick science lesson. The human brain is the product of millions of years of evolution. It continually adapted and evolved over time to survive in constantly changing circumstances. Because of these evolutionary developments, the brain is often described as three brains in one.
The three parts of the brain

  1. Primitive or reptilian brain: The oldest part of the brain that controls the body’s vital functions; it’s adept at sensing threats and danger.
  2. Limbic or social brain: Developed in mammals to survive in a social world, such as bonding with a mother and cooperating with members of a tribe. It senses fairness and passes judgment.
  3. Neocortex or human brain: Develops language, is capable of vast learning, conceives of time, and plans for the future. It also mitigates the impulses of the primitive and limbic brains.

Tip: When planning any change, understand that you’re dealing with three brains in one person, and each brain has a different trigger. So, be sure to minimize surprises (primitive), be as equitable as possible (limbic), and create meaningful opportunities for people to conceptualize the future state (neocortex). This approach will reduce the impulsive and emotional responses of the primitive and limbic brain, and will encourage the adaptable and self-regulating capabilities of the neocortex.

Brains hardwire repeated behavior.

Fun fact: Your brain uses 20 percent of your total energy every single day. To help conserve energy, the brain has learned to hardwire repeated behaviors so they become automatic, rather than making the brain “work” to complete them, which would use up precious energy.

When a person learns to do something, such as typing on a keyboard, their brain develops connection points across the brain that enable their fingers to tap out letters, words, and sentences. Repeat this over and over and that person no longer has to “think” to type. Now, imagine the QWERTY keyboard was replaced with a “better” designed keyboard, and to use it requires a new way of typing. The brain doesn’t like this; it invested lots of energy to enable the current way of typing. So, the brain releases noxious neurochemicals when a person attempts the new behavior, such as using the pinky finger to hit the spacebar. The brain is screaming: “Stop! That’s not how we do this,” because it wants to stay in autopilot and conserve energy.

Tip: People’s brains must develop new neural connections to enact new behaviors. This is physically draining work. Change programs must account for the time, space, and resources people need to get their brains wired for the future state.

Mental models are hardwired too.

Contradictions to a mental model can be a major energy drain on the brain.

Just like behaviors, a person’s mental model, or way of thinking, is hardwired in their brain as well. Contradictions to a mental model can be a major energy drain on the brain. To save energy, the brain either ignores the inconsistent information or seeks out confirming information. It also sends strong, pleasure-inducing neurochemicals when a person confirms their way of thinking. Neuroscientists have a saying for this: “They only hear what they want to hear.”

Tip: Communicating change is a two-way street: You want your people to be able to articulate the new organizational framework for themselves. Otherwise, their brains will either ignore the new message or only hear the parts that confirm how they already think.

Neuroscience helps you translate resistance.

It’s tempting to assign labels to people’s resistance to change, many of which are not positive: fear, stubbornness, backward thinking. When you view resistance through the lens of neuroscience, you can translate that resistance into something more human: avoiding danger, demanding fairness, protecting finite energy resources. These characteristics enabled the survival of our species. By learning how the brain functions, change practitioners can become mind translators who work with the brain, not against it, to better facilitate change.

Want to learn more about the neuroscience of change and how you can use it to enable better performance? We wrote the book on it (literally). It’s called “The Social Cognitive Neuroscience of Leading Organizational Change: TiER1 Performance Solutions’ Guide for Managers and Consultants,” by Dr. Robert Snyder, Senior Neuroscience Advisor at TiER1. Check it out!

Jordan Rickard is a strategic change consultant at TiER1 Performance Solutions in Chicago. He has a passion for helping people and organizations navigate strategic change to become more effective, creative, and sustainable. And when he’s not providing change consulting, Jordan loves to read, write, travel (18 countries and counting), and spend time with his wife and kids.

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