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Many organisations are engaging in wide-scale change initiatives, and have been for several years.

I joined HR leaders at the Asia-Pacific HR Summit on 4th-6th March 2014, where organisational transformation was the big theme. HR leaders from companies such as Campbell Arnott’s, CNH Industrial and QBE Insurance spoke about their strategies for facilitating successful cultural transitions, business transformation and ongoing change within evolving global and local environments.

Some of the most successful elements in these change initiatives were the visible commitment of senior leaders to collective wellbeing and the willingness to embrace change as an opportunity for growth, learning and renewal. While costs and head counts may have been cut, or multiplied, in the case of growth and acquisition, successful leaders managed change strategically and positively, acknowledging the potential negative impact and emotions while striving toward a common purpose.

Not all organisational change succeeds. Much of this has to do with the way the brain is designed. As we wrote in an earlier article, a 70% failure rate is commonly cited for change initiatives designed to improve business performance. Organisations need to work hard to counter negativity during change and focus efforts on the positive to realise the full potential of change management initiatives. They also need to understand the psychological impact and resistance that accompanies change.

Neuroscience of change: Key principles

Here are some of the strategies I shared with HR leaders in my keynote presentation on the Neuroscience of Change in Organisations.

 

Threat and reward: The brain and change

What goes on in the brain when change occurs? And how can we minimise negative impact and maximise engagement during change?

Our brains don’t like change. This is largely because we are wired to perceive changes in our environment as a threat, which biases perceptions, action and decision-making. The brain is primed to see those changes as errors that indicate danger is nearby.

When the grasses in the savannah rustled disturbing a pleasant walk, it was safer for our ancestors to react as though a big cat was about to pounce. Our instinctive emotional response, far faster than logic, compelled our bodies quickly into action. Not much has changed in the way our brains and bodies are designed.

While individuals may be motivated by different factors, a fundamental organising principle of the brain impacts everyone’s behaviour: the urge to minimise threat and maximise reward. Our survival instincts incline us to “run away” from threat. We “walk toward” reward.

Our brains don’t like change. This is largely because we are wired to perceive changes in our environment as a threat, which biases perceptions, action and decision-making.

 

Designing change strategies with the brain in mind

How do we prepare people to embrace the benefits of organisational change without priming them to resist change efforts?

Some of the typical tactics designed to kickstart change can trigger the brain’s threat/fear response and error detection mechanisms. Be cautious.

For example, a Change Readiness Survey alerts people up front that change is coming. This can signal to the brain that something bad may be about to happen, which can inadvertently set up resistance. Creating urgency around change can have a similar effect. People may need more time to adjust and a staged approach to communicating change. Tailoring a “what’s in it for me” communications strategy can help connect people to the benefits—as long as it is not perceived as a sales pitch.

By understanding and leveraging this neural mechanism, organisational and human capital leaders can design strategies to overcome the perceived threat of change and build psychological and social resources that enable people to move forward step by step.

The most effective strategies focus on connecting people with the brain’s reward response and connecting people to each other. As social animals, our relationships offer a powerful buffer within changing environments. Social support provides opportunities to generate positive emotions and motivates people to take an active contribution to change for themselves, each other and the organisation.

The most effective strategies focus on connecting people with the brain’s reward response and connecting people to each other.

For more brain-based strategies, check out our free eBook on How to Lead with the Brain in Mind.