Transformation Solutions Blog

Organizational Change — It is all in your head!

November 12th, 2019

Change is hard.  But getting people to change is important – it is one of the most important roles of a leader. Neuroscience provides important insights about why change is so difficult, and also gives us ways to change the way we manage change in organizations.  It brings scientific evidence to the “soft” stuff.  

The absolute purpose of our brain is not thinking.  We go through our lives believing that most of the brain’s processing happens in our consciousness, but nothing could be further from the truth.   Brain activity in the neocortex (where executive thinking happens) is just 5% of total brain activity!  Thinking comes last by all measurements in the brain’s priority for survival. 

While the nature of work has changed, our brains have not.  Our brain still thinks it’s out on the savannah; and for our brains, the goal is survival.  Our brains are tuned to detect changes in our environment, and alert us to anything that is different or unusual. When change occurs in our business environment our limbic brain (where learning, memory, motivation and emotion are controlled) goes on high alert.  This takes away resources from other, higher intellectual functioning. We then become emotionally biased in our decision making and more impulsive.  We are actually afraid of change!

Although it only comprises 2% of our total body weight, our brains consume more energy than any other part of the body; and the brain prioritizes how this energy is used – first served are those functions that ensure survival.  The brain wants to conserve energy so, 70% of what we do is governed by habit.   Change is hard for the brain as it requires more energy than staying the way we are.  The brain consumes almost 90% of its energy in a calm state, when people aren’t asked to do much thinking – so that leaves relatively little energy for complex and cognitively demanding tasks.   

While some slight uncertainty can be quite appealing to our brains, significant change, or layer upon layer of change are seen by our brains as a threat.  Our threat response kicks in much faster, is stronger, and lasts longer than our reward response.  When threatened, our field of vision narrows and we are less able to perceive what is going on around us.  Uncertainty twists our view of threats and can make things seem worse than they are. We are distracted and more anxious and we have a greater tendency to speculate negatively – remember we are focused on survival.  Decision-making becomes more difficult because we can’t think clearly.  We are less resistant to stress and emotions.

To conserve energy and ensure survival, our brains are helpless prediction machines — we are constantly looking for patterns.  Not moving is more dangerous than moving, so the brain will try to find clues to quickly figure out the best option and go for it – uncertainty means no survival.  Whenever we spot a pattern, our brain matches stimuli with memory – in other words, our brain will search our memory to match this new information with existing previous information.  When we have a pattern match, we are rewarded with a rush of Dopamine, a very influential reward chemical in our brain.  Our brain is not very exact or deliberate in its assessment of danger; rather, it tends to make snap judgments that assume and exaggerate threats that aren’t real.

The good news is that the discovery of neuroplasticity revealed that the brain continues to remake itself every day, forming new neural pathways, pruning out unused pathways, and rerouting existing pathways in response to new experiences and stimuli.  Habits are grooved into our brains, but these habits can be rewired.

While there are more than a small number of change theories, focusing on neuroscience provides a science-based approach.  This gives us a stronger edge to arguments about how to lead and support people during change.  Our challenge is to grow the number of leaders who understand the brain.

Want to know how we can apply Neuroscience to change?  You’ll have to wait for my next post.