The neuroscience of change

06 February 2017

Author: Georgi Gyton


The neuroscience of change

Why addressing the threat response in our brains is the answer to solving HR’s toughest task

Is there a sentence more terrifying to hear, as an employee, than: ‘You’ll be seeing a few changes around here’? Even confident, high-performing individuals can be struck dumb by the prospect of their certainty and security being usurped by something new, no matter how benign it turns out to be in reality.

In one sense, that’s an odd reaction because – no matter how we define it – there has never been more change. Organisations open up, close their doors and alter their business models faster than ever before, abetted by globalisation, digitalisation and cut-throat competition. We are beset by restructures, office moves, changes of process and new colleagues. Yet no matter how much change we experience, it never fails to trigger a threat response. In short, where the business leaders who mandate change see an opportunity, everyone else sees danger.

Change management theory often notes research from Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, which found that 70 per cent of large-scale change programmes inside companies fail to meet their goals. His colleague, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, believes this is because businesses fail to plan ahead and anticipate the human factors: “The best tool for leaders of change is to understand the predictable, universal sources of resistance in each situation and then strategise around them,” she has said.

You can’t always make people comfortable with change, but you can minimise their discomfort. And the key to that is to understand what’s going on in our heads when change comes knocking. “If you look at it structurally, the network of the brain that is involved in noticing changes and deciding what to do – the prefrontal cortex – is one of the most energy-demanding, easily tired and easily overwhelmed parts of the brain,” says Dr David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work. “That means changing how we do even the simplest of tasks is a very complex process. This region is connected to every other part of the brain, and essentially works like a gating function, meaning everything slows down when you have to use it.”

According to Rock, the brain tries to habituate everything it can, to avoid having to use the prefrontal cortex if possible. “Any kind of change, even using a different computer, makes you slow down, so we are built to automatically detect any kind of effort as a threat and any kind of energy reduction opportunity as a reward.”

However, threat responses actually reduce the resources available to the prefrontal cortex at the time when you need them most – so when change comes, the act of not liking it makes it even harder to process, says Rock. And if the brain is already in a threat state, small threats seem like big threats, and even neutral occurrences can be threatening: something as simple as someone asking how you are can be taken the wrong way. That means people with a strong baseline of threat are not comfortable with change.

But not everyone reacts to change in the same way. A minority of people thrive in a changing environment and are bored without it, while for others even being asked to swap seats at work can be an issue. Individuals’ varying reactions to change largely correlate to their point on a threat-reward continuum. Rock suggests this may relate, in part, to early experiences: people who have had their physical and emotional needs met by their parents generally feel safer, while those with more troubled upbringings have higher cortisol levels and a general sense that life is dangerous.

“Before you try and curb resistance to change, you need to get to the bottom of why the resistance is there,” says Khaled Al-Mobarak, president of Mawj Training & Consulting, who worked on implementing the largest IT project in the history of Saudi Aramco. “The main reason for resistance to change is lack of awareness. People want to know what’s happening and why.”

Communication, in this context, is key, as is ensuring you do not try and implement too many changes in too short a time – failing by over-reaching will only bolster organisational resistance. Breaking down change into manageable chunks, says Al-Mobarak, is more effective.

It’s also crucial to understand the person who is affected by change as much as the change being introduced. “You change one person at a time,” says Al-Mobarak – and that person could be experiencing pressures and stresses outside the workplace that you are only exacerbating.

One aspect that is often ignored is our emotions, adds Linda Jarnhamn, founder of HRinspireME – a hub and consultancy that brings together neuroscience, HR and change management in the Middle East. “Our thoughts and behaviours are all directed by our emotions, which are often generated non-consciously. Yet many change management programmes assume the opposite – that we are conscious, rational individuals,” she says.

“Most change communication is directed towards the ‘rational’ part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for things like planning, analysis and decision-making. However, communication is received through a different route – the limbic system – which is responsible for our emotions.”

According to Jarnhamn, we unconsciously attach meaning to change through emotions that we experience, based on memories from previous, real or even hypothetical events. It’s this gap – the uncertainty between the meaning and the interpretation – that is often the main cause for change resistance.

Rock synthesised his ideas about individual willingness to change in the ‘SCARF model’ he developed in 2008. “You can think about change in terms of how it’s going to affect people’s status, their sense of certainty, their sense of autonomy or control, their sense of relatedness and their perception of fairness,” he says.

Thinking about which of these areas will push employees’ buttons helps lead you to positive ‘nudges’ in some of the other domains that will create opportunities to counteract the threat. For example, if an organisation is introducing an open-plan office, Rock suggests there will be a natural threat to status (particularly for individuals with their own offices) that can be offset by increasing autonomy, offering people the chance to work from home. “Our research shows that if you can identify the key threat, you can reduce it at organisational level by offering a – ideally unexpected – reward in one of the other domains,” says Rock.

But with change so near-constant, giving people false hope that a calm, steady state will eventually return isn’t the best way forward, he says. Instead, companies should focus on helping people accept the fact that constant adaptation is a normal part of life. “Any time you go from uncertainty to certainty, even in the smallest variable, you create a strong reward response,” Rock says. “But if you don’t know if something will be a threat or a reward, it’s safer to classify it as a threat, and generally a strong threat, because in the absence of information we fear the worst.” That means communicating as much information as you can, specifically aimed at addressing areas of concern.

Is it possible to become permanently inured to change? Rock believes you can become ‘comfortable’ with it, aided by positive emotions at work, support from colleagues and a sense that you are being treated fairly.

It’s also possible for organisations to become institutionally resilient, through the way they structure work and the culture they encourage. Start-ups such as Netflix and Spotify, for example, embrace a culture of change. The latter organises its employees into cross-functional, project-based groups rather than formal teams, to ensure people are rotated regularly and aren’t necessarily managed by the individuals they answer to every day.

Aruma George, HR director at RSA Insurance in Dubai, says that while we cannot deny that change can be both complex and daunting, businesses that avoid it can easily be left behind. “If the employee or the organisation is not quick to shift perspectives and ways of working, they may be unable to gain ground, and may lose out to the competition,” she warns.

George believes companies that recognise change as a regular occurrence prepare their staff to respond to it more effectively: “That does not necessarily mean that it will be a seamless process, but it does pave the way for change to be implemented more quickly and with minimal disruption, to safeguard employee productivity as well as the business’s sustainability. Resilience does not mean blind acceptance. Change, if not done for the right reasons, or if not thought through, would not be successful.”

One of the most important roles HR professionals play during the change process is rallying employees and organisations behind a common vision for the future and away from the immediate consequences of change, says George: “While change is rarely initiated by HR, it is often perceived as being owned by HR, primarily because success or failure is determined by how employees respond.” That means HR has a critical role to fulfil in “guiding change leaders on employee communications, engagement and processes to achieve the desired outcomes”, says George.

“Communication is a key tool. Decision-makers and change drivers within the organisation need to be clear on what is communicated, how it is communicated, how frequently and by whom.” A clear, consistent message across the business is vital, as employees will pick up on anything that doesn’t resonate with the official line.

Because of the complex psychological reactions that arise in the wake of a change initiative, it is imperative to constantly communicate with staff, explaining the ‘case for change’, says Guy Arguin, regional HR director for the Middle East and Africa at design, engineering and project management consultancy Atkins. “Define, as much as possible, what the future will look and feel like, and how it will impact on everyone’s role – but mainly describe what opportunities this new working context might bring,” he says. “It’s really about providing new points of reference to help people figure out where they fit. The more clarity that can be provided, the better.”

Atkins’ future is centred around its global design centre in Bangalore, India – a facility that grows significantly by offshoring many transactional tasks from the Middle East HR team. “HR is now able to focus on the more strategic elements of the HR offering, allowing us to partner more closely with the business; there is a rich pool of well-educated talent in India and it also means we are open for business for a longer period in the Middle East because we have the sixth day overlap,” explains Arguin. “It’s a big change for the Middle East HR team, but we have been able to redirect most people on to more value-added tasks, which has resulted in greater job satisfaction– and most have embraced the change wholeheartedly.”

Arguin says constant communication with colleagues helped reduce the element of uncertainty and provided clarity on what the new environment would be like, and how it would impact positively on individual roles. “Daily support and formal training were also key success factors, and we have arranged regular visits, in both directions, to ensure a solid introduction to how we work.”

Atkins’ change has been successful because it has been positioned as a positive story. But even change borne out of misfortune can avoid falling into Kotter’s 70 per cent. The key might be to avoid thinking of it as change: with so little staying the same, telling people they are undergoing a formal change is not just bad for their brains, it’s probably self-evident. And given that another change will be along in just a moment, it’s demoralising and inaccurate to claim change has a beginning and an end.

Rock, for one, says it’s time to normalise change rather than call it out: “There is a big move for companies to develop more of a growth mindset and to think more deeply about the science of change, which is exciting to see. There is a lot to learn from the science, which will allow us to move through change better.” It’s unlikely even the best science will ever make us love change. But it can certainly make the fear a thing of the past.

Leading successful change

Aruma George of RSA Insurance gives her tips for successful change leadership

  • Develop effective communication strategies – organisational leaders need to focus on providing insights and clarity, keeping channels of communication open and ensuring messaging is consistent.
  • Ensure leaders are visible and accessible – it is crucial that leadership is honest, transparent and consistent in its approach during times of change.
  • Put the customer first – change mustn’t be a reason to go back on the promise a brand gives its customers.
  • Keep things positive despite the challenges – employees can tell when things seem different to what they are used to. This can also trigger a ‘fight or flight’ reaction, so recognising stress points and alleviating them are what make an approach successful.
  • Trust employees to be a part of the process rather than just at the receiving end.
  • Filter through the must-dos, and do them well.
  • Identify critical talent and devise a strategy to retain them, as well as alternative strategies for replacements if necessary.
  • Make timely interventions, and keep things simple.