Can you Really Manage Change?

We know that dealing with imposed change is hard at an individual human brain level and our unconscious response is generally to resist. Graham Hart and Ruth Donde explain how leaders can help to create a ‘towards’ state and help manage change for all stakeholders.

Most global studies agree that you have about a one in three chance of realising all the benefits you had hoped to get in your organisational change. Not bad odds for the optimists amongst you. On the other hand for your pessimists, you are absolutely right, “we are doomed” – there is after all approximately 66% chance of failure.

Maybe the chance of the change being realised depends on the mix of optimists and pessimists in your company? And isn’t that part of the problem?

Our change methodologies are quite logical, rational and full of useful phases, threads and action points. You can see the relationship and linkages in many methodologies with esteemed writers and thinkers such as John Kotter, Warren Bennis, Chris Argyris, Charles Handy, Ed Schein et al

If only all human beings were purely rational, logical, organized and action-orientated these change methodologies might work perfectly! The trouble is that people’s experience of past change determines how they respond to future change, and when you consider how poorly many change initiatives are managed people often have a sense of dread about upcoming change.

Let’s look at what know about our brains. Change is hard at an individual human brain level.  Our brains are wired to detect changes in the environment and to send our strong signals to alert us to anything unusual. As soon as we notice an error or change in our environment, our brain, particularly the areas involved in error detection (the anterior cingulated cortex, insula, amygdala and limbic system) are activated.

The immediate impact of this is something called cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance:
A discomfort caused by holding conflicting thoughts, feelings, and emotions simultaneously

We may do a number of things to ease this discomfort from distracting ourselves, ignoring it completely or consciously trying not thinking about it or even trying to look for the bright side or silver lining.

When anything tries to change us, our unconscious response is generally to push back and at least initially maintain our current ways of doing things. This built in resistance to change elicits such a powerful emotional response in us that it easily overcomes all reason and common sense. Even when our lives or livelihood are at risk, change may still not happen e.g. in studies on coronary bypass patients told to change their lifestyle or face premature death die 90% hadn’t change their lifestyle two years on.

Not only are we resistant to change and being changed, but our emotional response regions, our limbic system takes over from our prefrontal cortex (the executive function of our brain) and we are less able to process new information, learn, plan, decide, problem solve, inhibit or memorize and recall. In addition to that we are more likely to default to our habits rather than reflect rationally on the pros and cons of the upcoming change.

The bottom line is that our evolutionary response to any perceived threat is still tailored towards a possible physical threat (escaping from the tiger) and can be very debilitating from a cognitive perspective.

Let’s have a look at some of the notable concepts and features present in change management methodologies and see how they might relate to what we are starting to understand about the human brain and change.

I apologise if your change methodology is radically different and ask you to bear with us here.

Features in change management methodologies:

Notable ConceptHow Our Brains Typically Respond
Pressure for change – demonstrated senior management commitment is essentialThere is a lot of threat associated with change. The human brain has an overarching organising principle to minimize threat and maximize reward. We therefore respond to threat by fighting or fleeing.
A clear, shared vision – you must take everyone with you. A shared agenda that benefits the whole organisationAmbiguity is threatening to most of us Clarifying where and why for the organisation is important and where leaders tend to focus but people are generally more interested in “what’s in it for them
Capacity for change – you need to provide the resources time and financeOrganisational change happens one brain at a time and different people need different mental processing to make sense of the change and get engaged with it There are no people resources without engagement and this is a voluntary process and cannot be forced over the long term This can be helped or hindered by conversations and coaching
Action Manage performance – “plan, do, check, act” keep communication channels openPerformance management can provide useful clarity and structure but not if it drives out diverse discussion or confuses useful critical comment with dissent and negativity

Change approaches that are management and top-down based, and that require wise managers to “oversell” or “over-market” ideas to the organisation have the capacity to sabotage themselves. Of course leadership communication and influencing is important but so are the numerous group discussions, one-on-ones and cafeteria talks.

In order for people to embrace change more fully we need to consider how the human brain works. There needs to be preparation for change and a belief that change is possible. We believe there needs to be a shift to a growth/learning mindset – that all people can change and it is safe to do so, even if we make mistakes along the way.  Leaders need to hold themselves and each other accountable for creating this new environment to make change safe; and bring alongside early adopters to support this shift in paradigm so that slower adopters can feel secure to do things differently.

Rather than episodic constipated chunks of change we should aim to ensure people are change-ready and that there is willingness and desire to change and that additional support is available for those needing it.

Three steps can help:

  • Create a toward state
  • Facilitate new connections
  • Embed the new wiring

We need to create a toward state for change.

Common language is useful and change models do provide language in order to be able to label what is going on. How we get the message across is also vital.  Instead of  ‘telling’ and overwhelming people with information, it can be useful to tap into people’s individual ideas and experiences, using story, metaphor and anecdote to create new experiences and paradigms for people.

It is also helpful to tap into individual’s social motivatorsDr David Rock’s SCARF model is particularly relevant here.  Each SCARF motivator (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness), can either create more of a reward or a threat state depending on how it is triggered.

We can enhance someone’s toward state by making them feel valued, perhaps including them in discussions around change.  Certainty can be enhanced by providing consistency of information.  It may be that information is available to be shared on what can be expected over the next month, if not available for the longer-term future. Autonomy may involve people being able to make some of their own decisions within constraints.  Relatedness is usually managed by how well the direct report and manager get along and during intense periods of change, taking time out to chat to your people is valuable.  Fairness may be about being transparent in the process.

Having a clear vision and focusing people’s attention on that, and on how to get to the vision works well, rather than obsessive focus on the details of the problem, which tends to create a downward spiral of poor thinking.

New connections

Allowing people to have new connections is about helping people to have their own insights about change.  It taps into intrinsic motivation.  Keeping focused on the solution and finding the ‘what’s in it for me’ allows people to align their own values with the new path ahead.  When this insight happens, there are new neural pathways made in the brain.  These sit alongside the old ‘super highways’ of how things were.

Embedding the new wiring is the next step

In order to make the fragile new connections into the new super highways.  This is done through repetition, positive reinforcement and focus.  As leaders, we need to support our people through change with individual follow up.

Neuroscience is confirming that change is an individual perception and experience.  We believe leaders need to focus more on the people vs. the process in change management; and working with people on an individual basis vs. population basis is crucial as it is individual brain changes that need to happen and we know that no two brains are alike.  This can be done using an individual coaching approach. There are many ways to do so as to provide an environment for solution-focused questioning, facilitating insights and triggering own brain reward centres. Individuals can work with their own mental maps and have support to reinforce, embedding new habits.

As people work against their biology initially, setting goals can focus attention on the fragile new connections.  Goals help us go against the path of least resistance.  Linking organisational goals at various levels with individual goals can be supportive. Organisationally if all leaders hold the connections between the motivation ‘why’ and the execution ‘how’ in goal hierarchy, employees can understand the larger purpose for change and also the multiple ways it can be implemented, and how they can tap into that.

Everything in life involves change – we need to get better than one in three successful change projects, and we believe this can happen if we balance change methodologies and focus on managing change at an individual, human, brain level.

Ruth Donde (B.Pharm. M.B.A.) is a Director with Mantle.  She is a facilitator, coach and consultant specialising in implementation of organisational initiatives using a neuroscience approach.  Ruth has completed studies in the Neuroscience of Leadership.  She has written and published papers and book chapters on various coaching and neuroscience of leadership related topics and has presented papers at many global conferences.

Graham Hart (BSC Hons, Graduate IPD, MHRINZ) is a Director with Mantle and an accredited and practicing Executive Coach and Organizational Development Consultant. Over the last 20 years he has specialized in leadership and organizational change capability development and brings a systems and neuroscientific approach to his practice.