At the start of a new year people tend to set New Year’s resolutions trying to “change,” either by adding something new (taking up a new hobby, adding a new skill) or by changing something they do not like (losing weight, becoming more patient, creating a stronger executive presence). As you may know, the success rate is not high with New Year’s resolutions, with 80% failure by the end of February.
Why? Because change is painful. It is painful when you choose to change and even more painful when change is imposed upon you. When it is imposed versus chosen change, the brain can rebel. Let’s dive into the neuroscience to understand this better.
When new information is presented to us, the prefrontal cortex (the brain’s center for rational thinking) compares the new information to known information already stored in the brain. This is difficult work because the prefrontal cortex can only hold a limited amount of information and fatigues easily. The brain then looks for perceived differences between the data. It also looks for differences between expected outcomes and actual outcomes. If there are contradictions, the brain engages the fear circuitry (the amygdala) and it can start an anger or fear response unproductive to change.
Change is all around us today in this volatile environment. It comes in the form of mergers and acquisitions, organizational change, role changes, and even when leaders get difficult feedback where they are surprised. What do these changes have in common? They are imposed change versus chosen change.
To make matters worse, people prefer to do what they have always done. We operate out of habit. This is again due to the brain. Habitual tasks are stored in the basal ganglia which uses less energy and awareness to operate. We rely on habits to function. This is good for efficiency when things are stable, but it is a detriment to change. We cannot replace old habits, the neuropathway for that habit remains, but it can deteriorate. Therefore, we need to build new neuropathways through new behavior and repeat those behaviors so that the new pathway fires instead of the old one. It takes time to build new habits, but it can be done with focused attention.
The good news is that leaders can do things to calm the brain to help drive change:
- First, help people realize and understand the perceived differences between new data and stored data. Creating this understanding will help people feel more in control and that they can predict what is coming their way. This creates more certainty which helps calm down the amygdala.
- Second, help people see the change as a challenge. You may have heard of the “WIFM” (what’s in it for me). The brain sorts information in 2 ways, either it is good for me or it is a threat. When it is a threat, the amygdala fires up and fear hormones flood our system. When it is something I want, the brain engages the thinking parts of the brain and moves towards it faster. Help your employees find their WIFM in the change.
- Third, foster a growth mindset in your organization. This mindset helps us see that most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. It throws out the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Through this mindset people can see change as positive growth. To foster the growth mindset, help people see the challenge, celebrate progress (including baby steps), and allow experimentation and failure.
While change is hard, it is possible to make it easier. Leaders have the power to guide their people through productive change by using both individualized and organizational techniques. If you are trying to drive change, send me an email. I’d love to hear how it is going.