Guest Blogger: Paul McGinniss, PCC (ICF) MSHR
Director, Training & Delivery
North America NeuroLeadership Group
The old adage, “The only constant is change,” needs an update. Instead, it should read, “The only constant is resistance to change.” You can find numerous approaches to instituting, implementing, overcoming, incorporating, and enabling change. The challenge is: if you’re not taking into account the brains of the people upon which the change is “being instituted,” your initiative will likely experience a less than desired outcome. Sure, change is hard. But it is not solely about the difficulty of the change itself that’s makes it hard to implement. It’s about the common brain-based human reaction to change that poses a significant challenge.
The brain likes to maintain homeostasis to guard the body from threats. Change is a disruption to this state. The natural reaction to a disruption of homeostasis is for the limbic system to engage, creating the proverbial fight or flight response. Change can also be thought of as emotional pain. Ironically, the body reacts to emotional pain the same as if it were physical pain. When you introduce a change, your employees are fighting to avoid it as if their lives depended on it, which their brains literally think is the case. It’s no wonder they are not expressing your same enthusiasm about your initiative. You think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and they’re on DEFCON 2.
So what’s a leader to do?
Leverage what we are learning about the brain and apply it to your change initiative. How? Ask yourself, “What is change from a brain perspective?” Change in the brain is represented by new wiring. New wiring is created from insights which happen when we make a brand new connection in the brain. The brain loves insights. Insights release various brain chemicals associated with pleasure states. When was the last time you heard people talking about change as a pleasurable experience?
How can you apply this idea to a change initiative?
Normally, you are introducing change to get you from where you are to a more desired or preferred state. Rather than create the change and institute it (using various consultants, communication strategies, training programs …), here’s an idea: let the change process come from your employees. Engage them in the creation of the change initiative itself. Communicate your current reality and your desired outcomes and have them help you figure out how to achieve those outcomes. This is a major first step to a successful change initiative.
Here are a few more things you can do to improve your odds.
- Eliminate or reduce Status: Create project teams where all members know that their contributions are valued and they can participate as equals. Threats to a person’s status trigger the fight or flight response. Minimize status inequities and you minimize that response.
- Create Certainty: Let your employees know as much as possible as early as possible and throughout the process to remove uncertainty and reduce fear. If they are aware of what is happening and what to expect, their emotional or “animal brain” response will be decreased.
- Introduce Autonomy: Provide employees with options for how to achieve the desired outcome and implement change and you allow them greater control over their own fate. We all know it’s good to engage people in the process. Providing Autonomy takes that thinking a step further. Engaging people in the process and giving them choices allows them to make their own new connections and hardwiring which the brain loves!
- Communicate Relatedness: People need to know whether something is “friend or foe.” If your desired solution is not “friendly” to your employees, meaning it does not create a better world for them (or they don’t understand how it will), they will resist helping you achieve it.
- Ensure Fairness: If people think something is fair, they will work toward achieving it. If not you’re dead in the water.
By having your employees, themselves, create the change you need and by applying the above points (otherwise known as SCARF), your chances for successfully implementing a change are dramatically increased. Doesn’t sound like brain science? Well, actually, it is.