I’ve been speaking on change leadership for over 25 years, but only recently have researchers been able to use technology like functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) to look at the brain and see what actually happens when we’re facing a major organizational change.
Most of our daily activities including many of our work habits are controlled by a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. These habitual repetitive tasks take much less mental energy to perform because they become hard wired and we no longer have to give them much conscious thought. So it’s no wonder that the way we’ve always done it not only feels right, it feels good.
Change jerks us out of this comfort zone by stimulating the prefrontal cortex, a section of the brain responsible for insight and impulse control. But the prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to the amygdala and that’s the brain’s fear circuitry, which in turn controls our freeze, fight or flight response. And when the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed with complex and unfamiliar concepts, the amygdala connection gets knocked into high gear. The result is all those negative feelings of anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, fatigue or anger that change leaders observe in their teams (and often in themselves).
But if science helps explain our negative reaction to change, it also offers insights for helping people deal with change:
- Make the change familiar. If you show people two pictures of themselves, one an accurate representation and the other a reverse image, people will prefer the second because that’s the image they see in the mirror everyday. It takes a lot of repetition to move a new or complex concept from the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia. Continually talking about change, focusing on key aspects will eventually allow the novel to become more familiar and less threatening.
- Let people create change. No one likes change that’s forced on them; and yet, most people respond favorably to change they create and brain research shows why this is so. At the moment when someone chooses to change, their brain scan shows a tremendous amount of activity as insight develops, and the brain begins building new and complex connections. When people solve a problem by themselves, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline and this natural high becomes associated positively with the change experience.
- Simplify your communication. The prefrontal cortex can only deal well with a few concepts at a time. As tempting as it may be to lump everything you know about the change into one comprehensive chunk, don’t do it. Your job is to help people make sense of complexity by condensing it into two or three critical goals that they can understand and absorb.
- Don’t sugarcoat the truth. The prefrontal cortex is always on guard for signals of danger. When overly optimistic outcomes or unrealistic expectations are exposed (and by the way, they always are) the prefrontal cortex switches to high alert looking for other signs of deception and triggering the primitive brain to respond with feelings of heightened anxiety.
- Help people pay attention. The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain. In fact, attention is what is continually reshaping brain patterns. The term attention density refers to the amount of attention paid to a particular mental experience over a specific time. The greater concentration on a specific idea, the higher the attention density. High attention density facilitates long-term behavioral change. Now, one way to encourage people to pay attention is to package new ideas in continually different ways, attention grabbing ways. A story, a game, an experience, a humorous skit, a metaphor, an image or even a song.
- Don’t underestimate the power of emotion. According to the neurologist and author Antonio Damasio, the center of our conscious thought (the prefrontal cortex) is so tightly connected to the emotion-generating amygdala, that no one makes decisions based on pure logic. Damasio’s research makes it clear that mental processes we’re not conscious of drive our decision making, and logical reasoning is really no more than a way to justify emotional choices. When leaders announce change, therefore, they need to go beyond logic and facts and include an appeal to the audience’s emotions.
- In addition, remember that emotions are infectious. Like the common cold, emotions are literally contagious. You can “catch” an emotion just by being in the same room with someone. And since emotional leads tend to flow from the most powerful person in a group to the others, when the leader is angry or depressed, negativity can spread like a virus to the rest of the team, affecting attitudes and lowering energy. Conversely, upbeat and optimistic leaders are likely to make the entire team feel energized.
- Watch your body language. When your body language doesn’t match your words, your verbal message is lost. Neuroscientists at Colgate University study the effects of gestures by using an electroencephalograph (EEG) machines to measure “event related potentials” – brain waves that form peaks and valleys. One of these valleys, dubbed N400, occurs when subjects are shown gestures that contradict what’s spoken. This is the same brain wave dip that occurs when people listen to nonsensical language. So if you state that you are open to suggestions about implementing change, but as you talk about “openness,” you cross your arms in a “closed” gesture — you literally don’t make sense. And if forced to choose, people will believe what they see and not what you say.
- Give people a stabilizing foundation. In a constantly changing organization, where instability must be embraced as inevitable, a sense of stability can still be maintained. The leader’s role here is to create stability through honoring the organization’s history, detailing current successes and challenges, and creating a powerful vision for the future. And, by using the term “vision,” I’m not referring to a corporate statement punctuated by bullet points. I’m talking about a clearly articulated, emotionally charged, and encompassing picture of what the organization is trying to achieve.
- Optimize the power of inclusive relationships. Using (fMRI) equipment, researchers found that when someone feels excluded there is corresponding activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex — the neural region involved in the “suffering” component of pain. In other words, the feeling of being excluded provokes the same sort of reaction in the brain that physical pain might cause. The new change-leadership fundamentals emphasize inclusive and collaborative relationships. Social networks – those ties among individuals that are based on mutual trust, shared work experiences, and personal connections are the foundation for organizational success. Anything you as a leader can do to nurture these mutually rewarding relationships will also enhance the change readiness within your team and throughout your organization.
The biggest difference I’ve seen in the requirements for change leadership is a result of the shift from “the change” to “constant change” – and this is more than just semantics. Many leaders have become proficient in managing the occasional (or annual) large-scale transformation. But managers today are facing a flood of continuous, overlapping, and accelerating change that has turned their organizations upside down. And managing people in this environment requires all the communication and leadership strategies we learned in the past – and then some.