What can our change initiatives learn from neuroscience?

It can be hard to understand why people react negatively to change…

Having delivered a variety of change projects to organisations in both public and private sectors, nationally and globally, you’d assume you have the experience required to combat resistance and manage change effectively. But a recent project has made you question your approach and whether there’s more to it… I know how you feel, trust me, I’ve been there!

You did everything you said you would, successfully completed all your deliverables, focused on engagement activities, introduced change agents within the business, sent out communications and spent time with every user impacted by the change.

But the feedback was mixed and a number of people have reacted negatively, including some senior people expected to champion the change. People aren’t adopting the new technology, solution or processes brought about by change and without extensive additional effort from senior leadership, will inevitably revert back to their old ways. The change looks less and less successful and word of mouth has spread the wrong messages throughout the organisation, undoing all of your hard work, causing you to question everything. So what went wrong?

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

– H.P. Lovecraft (1920)

One of my favourite quotes related to change that still holds true today!

Let’s ask neuroscience!

Neuroscience is fascinating and I’m certainly not suggesting that this is all it can tell us, there’s so much we can learn about the way we do things, how and why we react to certain situations and countless more things from sleep habits and mood swings, to diet, food choices and the effects of each on the brain. I’ve actively looked to neuroscience to see what it says about the impact of change on the brain, or vice versa as it turns out.

I’ve read a number of books and formal studies (‘The Idiot Brain’ a book by Dean Burnett, ‘How exercise makes your brain grow’ a publication by the Cell Metabolism Journal and ‘Could we one day switch off bad habits in the brain’ a study by MIT neuroscientists being three of my favourites) finding a common suggestion/explanation for the challenges faced by organisational change initiatives, something that’s resonated with me and my own thoughts on the problem/s.

Numerous studies show that our brains compel us to form groups and turn on things that threaten them. Something I’m sure we’ve all seen and/or experienced, also known as ‘Herd’ or ‘Gang mentality‘.

These studies tell us, that as humans we link self-perception with group membership and as such, derive our identities from the groups we belong to. Therefore any threat to our group is a threat to us and anything that poses a danger to the way our groups do things is met with hostility.

Our brains compel us to form groups and turn on things that threaten them!

– Dean Burnett, ‘The Idiot Brain’

Just take a look at iPhone vs Android users, Burning Man Festivals, any sporting event crowd or even the French Revolution for good and bad (albeit extreme in some cases) examples of this! So, how can neuroscience help us?

Change is always more successful when it’s a collaborative, engaging experience in which the people impacted by the change are included.

– Me, I say that!

Well by this point I’m hoping you’ve been able to recognise where the example/s above may have occurred or be occurring in your own initiatives and potentially feel inspired to go and look into neuroscience and apply some different techniques yourselves.

In a nutshell, If we understand the threat (impact) of change to groups (teams/individuals/departments/roles) and actively engage those affected by change, we can help them understand and embrace it (manage resistance, push adoption) and drive significant, effective change in our organisations

Having a strategy for organisational change is imperative when introducing new technology, programs and/or process initiatives. Executing on that strategy however, is critical. Just remember this when deciding how much effort is required ahead of your next initiative, 10% is strategy, 90% is execution.

When planning your next change, give a thought to neuroscience and what it can teach us about why people react the way they do. Engage everyone, no matter their position, role, age or experience, ask a lot of questions about the way they work, what needs they have and make sure to plan thoroughly for resistance from the start!

Feel free to get in touch with me and let me know your thoughts and ideas!

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