5 ways neuroscience can help make change stick

One of my reproduced articles that was published earlier this year on CIO.com.au

Five simple tips your change manager should be using to build brain-friendly change in your business

Last month Commonwealth Bank’s CIO David Whiteing delivered a warning to his peers: “If your business transformation plans don’t scare you, they’re not bold enough and you’ll be left behind,” he said.

But what he didn’t mention is that bold plans and brain power are intrinsically connected – or at least they should be. The latest neuroscience can give us insights into emotion, attention, habit, creativity, intuition and resilience.

Here are five simple tips your change manager should be using to build brain-friendly change in your business.

1.  Harness the power of rewards

Threats and rewards are triggered in the prefrontal cortex. When we experience change, the brain goes into threat mode, so change managers should consider the threats that could be triggered by each project.

Start by getting clear on what people find threatening and override these mental events with something positive. Focus on things that matter to the group, and build rewards (perhaps something like training courses or team lunches) that keep staff feeling connected and satisfied while change is happening around them.

To shape this element of your change strategy, ask these fundamental questions at the outset:

What do people feel that they are losing?

  • What will they gain?
  • How clear is to them about what will change and when?
  • Prepare leaders to be honest, empathetic and transparent. They must acknowledge the change and treat people with respect.
  • Support frontline managers in communicating to their teams every step of the way. They are the most trusted source of information for teams. That means creating opportunities for team members to ask questions, express concerns and get answers. It’s also critical to outline what needs to be done – and when.
  • Appoint one or two trusted team members to be the “go to” people: they are local change agents who liaise between the team and management, and support and advocate for their teams throughout the change.

2.  Build a ‘growth mindset’

Change and growth are intrinsically linked. But the problem with change is that people typically resist it: most of us prefer the status quo, however imperfect, over the unknown.

If it’s done well, encouraging a ‘growth’ mindset to change can be fun and fruitful. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor developed the theory, which posits that change is easier when it’s seen as an opportunity.

She said: “Mindset is the single attitude that separates those who succeed from those who don’t.”

Still, how do we encourage staff to get to a growth mindset? By helping them to embrace the change, commit to the process and personalise the change: if something feels personal, it’s way more likely to stick.

For his or her part, the change manager needs to be persistent, help the team reflect on strategies that work or don’t and ask – on everyone’s behalf – “How can we learn and grow from this opportunity?”

3.  Encourage connections

The human impact of change is often underestimated and the emotional journey this involves, is frequently not acknowledged. People have a real need to connect to others throughout any major change. Neuroscience teaches us that relationship building and good communication are part of a powerful change strategy.

Things that can help include:

  • Prepare leaders to be honest, empathetic and transparent. They must acknowledge the change and treat people with respect.
  • Support frontline managers in communicating to their teams every step of the way. They are the most trusted source of information for teams. That means creating opportunities for team members to ask questions, express concerns and get answers. It’s also critical to outline what needs to be done – and when.
  • Appoint one or two trusted team members to be the “go to” people: they are local change agents who liaise between the team and management, and support and advocate for their teams throughout the change.

Things that can help include:

  • Prepare leaders to be honest, empathetic and transparent. They must acknowledge the change and treat people with respect.
  • Support frontline managers in communicating to their teams every step of the way. They are the most trusted source of information for teams. That means creating opportunities for team members to ask questions, express concerns and get answers. It’s also critical to outline what needs to be done – and when.
  • Appoint one or two trusted team members to be the “go to” people: they are local change agents who liaise between the team and management, and support and advocate for their teams throughout the change.

4.  Set brain-friendly goals

The key to successful change is behavioural: our brains like habit and routine and it takes the brain a lot of effort to develop new habits.

Goal setting can be really helpful in building new habits, but rewiring the brain needs to ensure the goals are ‘just’ hard enough, are easy to see when achieved and are easy for the business to track and measure. A good change manager should build goals into the change process at every opportunity to make the transition as smooth as possible.

5.  Allow new things to be learned in small chunks

Any repeated, intense learning experience (and let’s face it, most change brings a need for learning) requires sensory and cognitive skills. We need to understand new concepts, translate them into everyday work, memorise new processes and so on to rewire the brain on many levels.

Start the learning using a technical term called ‘distributed practice’: breaking learning into short sessions, ideally, spread over a long period of time. If the change involves formal training, remember that learners also benefit from recall and testing instead of passively reading material.

Learning in this way helps the brain to build the new neural networks needed for change to stick. Within a few days of focussed, repeated learning and practice, neural circuits in the brain begin to fire repeatedly. And as many of us know, the more we do this the better. The old adage ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ holds true.

Job Description

Often I get a wide-eye stare when I tell people I’m a Change Manager. Some people think I work in IT, write a bit of communications and organize some training then job done. Others think I swan around having coffee with senior managers and know a lot more than I really do. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Here are some things I’ve done this week as full-time change manager which many people probably don’t know the job involves:

  1. Develop a stakeholder engagement strategy to be clear on all the project stakeholders. This involves analysing who is influential, on our side, impacted and then assigned a relationship manager. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Until I’ve spent at least three months in an organisation I’m very dependent on others’ inside organisational knowledge which can be biased.
  2. Feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of stakeholders we have to consult, inform etc.
  3. Ponder why I’m not getting invited to meet senior leaders and make a note to self to work on my influencing skills.
  4. Got lost in a myriad of change templates and deciding which ones are the best to use on the current project.
  5. Try and identify the many dependencies that impact massively on the sequence of our change management tasks.
  6. Ask ‘Why is the change needed?’ and ‘What is the problem we’re trying to solve?’ and try to summarise it all in project mission statement in one paragraph.
  7. Procrastinate about developing a communication matrix listing key messages for each project phase.
  8. Discuss with a colleague what key messages we need to put in a communications being sent organisation wide to build awareness – it will be easier once we’ve worked it out!
  9. Wrote the first draft Fact Sheet for review and agonized over the wording of the introductory paragraph.
  10. Attend a weekly team coffee catch-up on each person’s achievements and challenges and brainstorm solutions if required. To be honest more time is spent chatting about our lives and being generally social – team building!
  11. Attend a Program Leadership Meeting to discuss the next project phase and how to prepare for it.
  12. Read a paper on the latest research into change and neuroplasticity and how the hormones involved – dopamine, adrenaline and cortisol – are influenced by the level of challenge and what people tell themselves. This is the fun stuff! I’m currently feeling high levels of cortisol – the stress hormone!

It’s a fun challenging job being a Change Manager but anyone who tells you it’s easy is pulling your leg!

Managing change in organisations

Struggling to make change? Here’s some science that will help..

Many people say that the only constant is change, but I disagree!

When it comes to career or organisational change, it seems the one constant in change is how hard it is to make it happen.

I know for myself and for many of my clients that a big part of deciding to make change seems to be procrastination, rumination and idea gestation, until at some point you say – enough is enough!

I have always been curious about why this happens. Have you ever noticed in your own behaviour, that no matter how committed you are to change it always seems harder and takes longer than you want?

Resolution to change is the starting point

When I resolve to make a change in my life I go into ‘research and plan’ mode.

I typically mind map the change, decide what needs to be done, add some activities to my next actions list and, often, that’s where it grinds to a halt.

It can sit on my task list nagging me for sometimes a week, a month or more. It’s as if it has to filter into my subconscious to mull over before I act.

For example, writing this blog took a while and then incorporating some constructive feedback from a valued colleague took longer.

So what’s going on here?

Fear creates resistance

Here’s part of the science part of change.

Our prefrontal cortex in the brain is responsible for planning, decision making and moderating behaviour. It is wired to continuously scan for threats.

Any change, if seen as a threat, will divert resources in the prefrontal cortex to focus on it until the threat passes. In the workplace for example, if employees perceive any change as a threat to their daily habits, status quo and their workplace in general, productivity and performance will suffer.

Using my example of blogging regularly I was aware that fear of failure had crept in – ‘Am I good enough?’ ‘If I fail, can I deal with the negative feedback?’ I saw the feedback as a threat. These seeds of doubt instantly set up resistance to the change.  I tried to be open to any doubts and explore them.

I saw a similar example of resistance when I was recently the change manager on the rollout of a new IT system.

We sent the 500 existing users new login details and what we thought were clear instructions on next steps. We tracked that about 90% of users received and opened the email.

However, many of them called the contact centre two or three times to ask about their new login details. Many said they hadn’t received them, even though the stats said otherwise.

Often they just wanted to complain about the new system even though the benefits were substantial i.e. an easier to use cloud based system providing enhanced tracking and reporting capability.  Much of the resistance was from fear of being less productive and, as a result, earning less money during that period.

What’s an effective way to manage this change?

Lean in

In an organisation for example, a key to managing successful change is to prepare leaders to be honest, empathetic and transparent.

It is also important to acknowledge the change and treat people with respect. The aim is to make the change as rewarding as possible.

So think deeply about the threats that could be triggered in the prefrontal cortex.

The best source of information about the changes are the people directly impacted and their team managers who can make or break a change.

It’s important to ask fundamental questions such as:

  • What do people feel that they are losing?
  • What will they gain?
  • How clear is to them about what will change and when?

Use the growth mindset

Any person or organisation making a change needs to approach it with a growth mindset by asking how can I learn and grow from this opportunity?

So when I received the feedback I was mindful of my negativity, leant in, trusted the process and gave it my best shot.  As a result, I relished reworking the content and I learnt a lot in the process about finding my voice and being authentic.

In the corporate setting, when taking calls about the system implementation, instead of being defensive I started really listening, empathising and addressing the users’ concerns.  I had open and honest dialogue and quickly followed up any promises made. Within a month most of the users were enjoying using the new system and finding ways to be more productive and swapping tips and tricks online.

Don’t underestimate the impact of change

The human impact of change is often under estimated and the emotional journey often not acknowledged.

Continuous relationship building and good communication are both part of a powerful change strategy.  The key to successful change is behavioural – people need to do things differently and embrace it over time. Our brains like habit and routine and it takes the brain a lot of effort to develop new habits. So be mindful of this and walk in others’ shoes for a while.

Don’t be so hard on yourself if  you are struggling to make it happen as quickly as you wish.

I find the results gratifying when I work through the resistance while acknowledging it’s there. I also find that during an organisational change you need to be respectful and mindful of everyone’s varying capacity and appetite for your change.

Adopt the growth mindset

Both organisational and individual change takes time but using the growth mindset developed Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University can be fun and fruitful.

The research only tells us what works for some people or organisations, some of the time.

It is important to help people explore what works best for them to change, make change stick and measure and share the impact in the workplace.

We need to learn ways to sustain the behaviours that create our desired outcomes.

To develop a growth mindset you need to focus on learning and improving, work hard, be persistent and reflect on strategies that work or don’t work.

About Sue Webster

I work with both organizations and individuals to help them navigate the challenging process of change.

For the past 15 years I have worked with some of Australia’s largest and most complex organizations on high-profile and business-critical changes across systems, software and people and processes. Along the way I have coached senior and middle management to help guide them along a path that makes change more satisfying for themselves and their teams.

All my coaching work is informed by my passion for understanding how our brains work when confronted with change, particularly the area of neuroplasticity. I also help clients assess their strengths and challenges and apply this knowledge to their careers. This knowledge may lead a client to changing or re-crafting their career.