How to Successfully Manage and Implement Organizational Change While Optimizing THE BRAIN’S RESPONSE
It’s really the only thing guaranteed in life — and business.
Yet, very few of us like it or deal with it well, much less embrace and welcome it.
More and more, how well a business adapts to and manages change is a crucial factor in determining whether it succeeds or fails. This is true on an organizational and individual level. As we saw with the pandemic, business conditions can change drastically and quickly making yesterday’s practices and assumptions
— that worked well — completely obsolete. Both individuals and organizations have to be able to pivot, respond, and adapt to operate and thrive in new circumstances.
Organizations, leaders, and business people are looking to neuroscience to help them manage transitions better. Learning about how the human brain works and applying neuroscience principles can smooth some of the rough edges that accompany change and help organizations and people have more success navigating a shifting landscape and not merely staying afloat but rising to the top.
THE HUMAN BRAIN NATURALLY RESPONDS TO CHANGE WITH FEAR
The human brain’s first instinct is to automatically respond to anything new or uncertain with caution and fear. This is really just our brains doing their job trying to keep us safe. It’s a holdover from when our ancestors were hunted by predators, and it gave them a survival advantage.
In other words, our brains associate change with being threatened, and our minds and bodies automatically go into stress response mode. In this state, our thinking brain shuts down, and we react emotionally from instinct as if our survival depended on it, which is not good for an organization as a whole or an individual. These days, that undercurrent of anxiety and fear can cause us to limit ourselves, not go after our goals, and avoid new situations and changes — even if they are good ones.
What this means in real life is that when faced with ambiguity and uncertainty, most people are going to be stressed and anxious. And the more uncertainty that exists, the less any reward or long-term benefit is going to matter to them. What matters is survival. In your brain, the threat response is stronger and given priority over the reward response.
In the article, “Modern workplaces don’t mix well with our ancient survival instincts. Here’s why.” John Medina, developmental molecular biologist and affiliate professor of the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, says:
“The brain is not interested in productivity. It’s not interested in the bottom line, and it certainly can’t stand your spreadsheets. It’s interested in one thing: survival. It’s interested in safety so that it can pass along its genes to the next generation. We need to take that seriously, but a lot of people think they can ignore the safety needs of another professional…When you ignore the survival instincts of the brain, people are actually working at a suboptimal level.”
OUR BRAINS HAVE A CERTAINTY BIAS
The human brain doesn’t merely prefer certainty over ambiguity. It craves it and will pursue the feeling of being right, known as “certainty bias,” every time. When you feel right, your brain is happy, and you feel better — even if it’s just an illusion. The more certainty and control we think we have about a potentially threatening situation, in this case, organizational change, the less stress we feel. Interestingly enough, perception is all that matters here. You don’t actually need to know for certain or have total control over how things will turn out to feel better. You just need to believe that you have them.
HOW TO MANAGE CHANGE SUCCESSFULLY WITH THE BRAIN IN MIND
Studies show that change management strategies can either heighten the brain’s negative reactions, creating more resistance, or they can help calm the brain’s stress response and support it to feel more in control, which facilitates the transition. Until the brain sees the change to be implemented as non-threatening, it is going to resist it. So, your goal in developing and implementing a change management strategy is to calm people’s brains and help them see the change as non-threatening.
I should note that every organization has those few people who embrace and thrive in changing times. These individuals are resilient, emotionally intelligent, open-minded, curious, driven, and more. They are also the exception.
FOCUS ON THE POSITIVES.
Most employees resist change because their brain comprehends the transition negatively as a threat. For example, they might fear their jobs are at risk or that the company itself is in trouble. Leaders must provide proof of people’s security and outline exactly how the changes will affect them. Be honest and clear about both advantages and disadvantages. You have to establish trust.
Be encouraging and positive yourself. This is a chance for you or the management team to lead by example. Successful leadership and change are primarily determined by the ability to develop and model self-leadership skills that enable you, and through your example, others to better navigate important, complex, and changing situations. Stress that you are in this together and that their participation is absolutely crucial for the change to be successful.
Present change as an opportunity. When people feel safe during the change process, it will automatically lower the threat alarm in their brains resulting in hope, action, and flexibility. They may even go from fear (“Will I still have my job?”) to relief (“Thank goodness somebody’s doing something!”) to excitement (“Let’s get going!”). Enlist some of the rare people who like change to hold influential roles.
CONSISTENT COMMUNICATION IS KEY.
When it comes to guiding your business and employees through a transition period, clear, focused, and consistent communication is one of the most powerful tools you have available to you. You must communicate constantly. Too often, there is a flurry of communication at the beginning which often becomes scarce later; employees are left in a vacuum, rumors spread, cynicism and turnover grow, and loyalty and productivity drop. Uncertainty feeds anxiety. Information calms it.
Tell people what to expect before anything happens and when and how they will get information. Then, tell them what is happening as it is happening. Then summarize and review the changes after they are implemented. There is no such thing as too much communication in times of transition. Remember, the brain has to feel safe. A lack of communication, in any situation, but especially this one, leads to confusion, low morale, more negativity and stress, absenteeism, and high turnover.
Have a plan in place to communicate with your employees on an ongoing basis about the progress of the change process. Be honest and transparent — even about the failures and what is not going well. When things don’t go as planned, say so. This establishes trust and shows that leadership is willing to recognize wrong decisions and adapt to move in a different, more successful direction.
ASK QUESTIONS AND ACTIVELY LISTEN.
This is part of communication, but it is so important that it deserves its own mention. When managing and implementing changes, employees have to feel heard. Remember, the brain wants the perception of being in control. When possible, let the employees be a part of the decision-making process.
Be prepared for resistance. It’s inevitable that some or even most employees will be resistant to the change you are trying to implement. It’s the brain’s instinctual response. When resistance inevitably does arise, ask questions, and really listen. Explore and try to understand the individual’s hesitation or motivation. Ask honestly why the change is a challenge for them and what’s causing them to feel stressed. Maybe they’re worried that their job is at risk or that they lack the right skill set to be successful post-change. If you take the time to talk to employees, you can understand their fears and mindsets and explain how the changes can fit into their career goals and benefit them.
Studies show that most people register only between 25 and 50 percent of what they actually hear. Many companies find it helpful to train leaders and employees in active listening with team-building activities before or during a big transition. Active listening includes:
- Focus attention on the speaker and tune out distractions.
- Repeat in your mind what someone else is saying and try to capture the details and overall message.
- Avoid creating an internal rebuttal. Seek to understand first.
- Demonstrate that you’re listening through open body language, nods, and reiterating your interpretation of what was
- said to check your understanding.
- Avoid interrupting.
- Be honest and open when it’s your turn to talk, but be sensitive and kind, even if you disagree.
WORK ON ELIMINATING ANXIETY AND STRESS AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.
If your company doesn’t already do it, a transition period is a good time to focus on and fortify organizational support for employee mental health. Be aware that some workers may need additional practical or emotional support during times of organizational change. As mentioned before, our brains are primed to resist change, and it causes stress and anxiety. There’s even a name for it, transition anxiety.
Your organization may want to consider offering the following:
- corporate induction programs
- access to employee assistance programs training about resilience
- health and well-being programs counseling/therapy for people
- experiencing distress from sources both in and outside of the workplace.
C O N C L U S I O N
To manage change successfully, I want to encourage you to think about change and your employees differently. To begin, I want you to think of change as an opportunity to develop and grow to be more successful — not a crisis. And I want to encourage you to think of your people differently too — not as commodities to be manipulated so your bottom line looks better but as resources for success and competitive advantage. Change can be a beneficial process for the organization, management team, and employees when implemented with sensitivity and brain-friendly principles backed by neuroscience. Transformation is a choice.
Your success starts when you see the whole system.
Do you want to develop a winning formula with accurate self- awareness to shift your perspective and discover new patterns for a radical personal and professional transformation, and have more impact?