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Rewiring for Change

If you’ve ever tried to change an organization, you’ve undoubtedly struggled with resistance. What you may not know is that resistance has a physical underpinning. Our brains are hard-wired against change.

 

Neuroscience can explain a lot about why we react the way we do to change as well as how we respond in the face of stress – and there’s no doubt that change can be stressful.

 

The first thing we do when exposed to a new idea is to compare it with what we already know. This comparison process takes place in the pre-frontal cortex, an energy-intensive part of the brain. On the other hand, we use the basal ganglia to deal with things we’ve already learned to do. This part of the brain sits amid established pathways of long-standing habit and takes much less energy to activate.

 

In addition, the brain uses a lot of energy to cope with surprises – perceived differences between what we expect and what actually happens. If we’re expecting something to taste sweet and it tastes salty or bitter instead, the orbital front cortex generates strong error signals. The orbital front cortex is closely connected to the amygdala, which houses the brain’s fear circuitry (more on this in a second).

 

So what do we need to do to overcome these predispositions?

 

First of all, it takes energy to process all the new information flooding into the brain, so help it out by reducing the number of inputs. The more people focus on what they’re learning – and change is all about learning – the better able they are to handle it. Get them away from day-to-day stress and distraction and introduce the new information in off-sites or other meetings where they can focus.

 

And make it an engaging, pleasurable experience.

 

Telling people “you’re all screwing up and heads will roll if we don’t fix this” engages the amygdala’s stress-fueled fight-or-flight reflex. Stressful situations create tunnel vision. Fear or anger. All we see is the enemy or the way out. Don’t we really want people to be at their most engaged and creative when they’re trying to discover how to make our organization’s more effective and successful? We get that by focusing on more positive things – goals, strengths, collaboration.

 

Looking forward toward a desired outcome instead of at the things you want to stop doing has another positive effect. If we assume it takes a similar amount of energy to worry about problems as it does to focus on goals, which do you think is a better investment of that energy?

 

Second, moments of insight help people to internalize new information and new ways of doing things far better than simply being told. One way to provide that insight is to engage people in designing the changes that need to be made. Give them access to data and goals and let them collaborate on creating the new approach, the new solution. If they own the solution people are more inclined to adopt it.

 

Finally, let them practice and generate the pathways in the basal ganglia where deep knowledge lives. That means don’t just dictate a change in procedure, give people a chance to work with it before it really counts. Give them training. The same holds true for creating change itself. The more people engage collaboratively and creatively, the better they’ll become at it and the more successful the organization will be at learning how to keep ahead of the curve.

 

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For more on this subject, see “The Neuroscience of Leadership” by consultant David Rock and Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz in strategy+business, Booz & Co.’s publication, and work by Daniel Goleman and others on Emotional Intelligence.

 

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