Many change initiatives fail to meet what they set out to do – so perhaps it is not surprising that this is an area where people look to neuroscience to solve the problems; while it doesn’t have all the answers, neuroscience is shedding light on why change management often ends up being a waste of time.
By considering how the brain works and why people behave the way they do, we start getting to the root of the issue; and new approaches to change management are already springing forth from the research.
Here are seven insights you may like to consider before initiating your next change program.
1. People don’t like change
Our brains have an automatic survival instinct and when it is threatened the ‘barriers’ go up. Change by definition means altering the status quo and introducing unpredictability about the future. This instinctively triggers the brain’s fight/flight survival state; we are unable to engage in ‘higher thinking’ when we are in this threatened state, so it is not surprising that decision-making suffers.
2. People like to be in control
Our brains are far more at ease when feel in control of the situation; again, the nature of change means that this is not the case when we are asked to start doing things differently. Springing surprises on people is not the way to maintain performance – the process must be managed with clear information communicated every step of the way.
3. People want to feel part of the group
Trying to impose change on people who feel alienated from the ‘group’ is never going to work. It will be strongly resisted. Efforts to introduce change must be preceded by efforts to nurture a comfortable working environment where everyone feels a part of the group and is contributing to it.
4. People want choice
Being in control means having the freedom to make choices. Change that people choose themselves is nearly always more effective than imposed change; so, rather than simply broadcasting what will happen in the future, leaders could help people draw their own conclusions. They will then feel like they have contributed to the process rather than being just another ‘cog in the wheel’, and this raises commitment levels.
5. Our brains are always changing
It’s wrong to think that people cannot change – no matter how old they are. Neuroscience shows that our brains can change and develop right into old age. This means that we can all change and learn, given enough positive reasons to do so; it also means that we can always change ingrained habits.
6. Dopamine is addictive
Even the smallest changes have the ability to trigger dopamine production. Dopamine is sometimes referred to as the ‘reward’ chemical. It functions as a neurotransmitter that sends signals to other nerve cells; most addictive drugs increase the release of dopamine. Providing goal-oriented tasks in the workplace can help stimulate production, as this increases the sense of achievement, as does reaching your own insights, being recognised amongst peers, and being reminded of successes rather than failures.
7. People are emotional
Leaving your emotions at the door when you go into work is impossible. People are essentially emotional beings and leaders’ words have a big impact on what people are feeling. These feelings are also contagious – so negative or positive emotions can rapidly multiply around the workplace. Rather than talking about ‘transformational change’ it might be better to focus on what people will get out of the change personally, so that positive emotions are triggered.
Too often in organisations, people are an afterthought in change programs – and are considered as ‘obstacles’ that must be overcome to achieve what the organisation wants. This needs to change if change itself is to become more accepted – and successful.