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The neuroscience of change

As most leaders are aware – people resist change. We also know that many change programmes fail to deliver the results promised. This is frequently because we all struggle to change our behaviours and adapt to the new ways of working. Recent findings from neuroscience help us understand in greater depth than ever before what’s at the heart (or the mind!) of this resistance to change. This understanding helps us adopt new strategies in preparing for and implementing programmes of change in organisations.

Advances in brain imaging technology now show more clearly than ever before how the mind impacts the brain. This has highlighted how the brain responds to social as well as physical stimuli. Understanding how our social brain works and responds, has major implications for how we lead and manage change in organisations.

We now know that our brains treat ‘social’ and ‘physical’ pain in the same way. When anything triggers social pain it therefore triggers actual physiological discomfort. Our brains are programmed to treat everything as either ‘threat’ or ‘reward’. The threat response is the default and is far easier to be triggered and greater in magnitude than the reward response. Understanding our ‘social’ brain, and what triggers the threat response, is becoming increasingly important for leaders.

social and physical pain

SCARF is a useful model for understanding our ‘social brain’, how it works and how we can trigger/avoid ‘social pain’ (Rock, 2008):

  • Status – whether an individual is (or perceives themselves to be) better/worse
  • Certainty – what is known/unknown
  • Autonomy – an individual’s level of control
  • Relatedness – whether someone is a friend/foe
  • Fairness – or perception of fairness.

The threat response will be triggered, resulting in social pain, when any of these are affected (or perceived to be affected). This starts to explain why it becomes so difficult for organisations to successfully implement change. Organisational change for many inevitably impacts many of these areas, triggering ‘pain’ for an individual. As a result we are neurologically programmed to resist/avoid it. This happens at a subconscious level, regardless of how strong the rationale or business case for change is.

So what does this mean for leaders of change? We now understand why the current thinking around driving change in organisations doesn’t work. Leaders need to think about how they minimise the ‘threat’ response. Whilst creating a compelling case for change and identifying the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) remain important, to minimise change resistance we need to minimise the threat in how change is talked about. We need a stronger focus on how we support people through change and on removing the barriers to change – making it easy!

We also know that fundamentally our brains are lazy and strive to minimise effort. Change requires more effort to understand and adopt new ways. We know however that the brain can change, can develop new default patterns (neuroplasticity) that overtime make the ‘new ways’ easier – they become habit or routine. To do this people have to imagine themselves and then start ‘being’ in the new way as much as possible. Leaders need to encourage, support and gently reinforce this. People experience what they expect to experience (e.g. placebo effect) – so as a leader you need to focus on managing those expectations. Leaders need to help people envisage the change and how they will be in it as early as possible in the change programme. As this happens, change appears less threatening and more quickly becomes business as usual which is fundamentally what we all like!