Your Brain on Change

Joanne Layne

Why is change so hard?


Despite decades of research, constant experimentation and innovation, it seems that our ability to adapt to and adopt workplace change initiatives has not improved. Far too many change efforts fail completely. Many others proceed very slowly and never achieve the levels of success that were intended.


We urgently need a new approach to change that leads to more success, more quickly. In other words, we need to do change better. But how do we improve our chances for success and accelerate the pace of change?


Perhaps we have been focusing on the wrong part of the change equation.


Most of the studies and research into change initiatives have focused on process, the steps we need to take to introduce change and cultivate acceptance. We have created checklists for leaders, advocated for strong communications strategies, and prescribed all sorts of handholding and nudging to get people to sign on to change. And little or none of it has worked for very long.


Numerous studies by some of the leading academics in the business and leadership space consistently show that only 30 per cent of change initiatives succeed. Many authors and thinkers, like Harvard Professor Emeritus John Kotter, have provided a framework and established a checklist for leading a successful change initiative. We have assumed that this is a problem with execution. However, what if the real problem is not the process of introducing change, per se, but the way our brains react to the challenge of change?


We are not born afraid of very much. Experts have long believed that we have inherent fear of only two things: loud noises and falling. And even then, there are informed sources that believe even those two fears are not present when we enter this world. Either way, it seems that human nature is not in any way naturally averse to change.


For most of our formative lives, we are in a nearly constant state of change and while some people struggle, most of us adapt to new conditions and people with quite a bit of success.


We see this in children: every fall they go back to school where they have new teachers, new friends, new clothes and new educational challenges. Although there are some common threads from year to year, there is also profound change in almost all aspects of their lives. Although not every child succeeds in adapting to the yearly alterations, the gross majority manages to take the change that comes with each new school year in stride.


Somewhere along the line, we began to fear change. We started to lose sleep over it. We were driven to distraction by the mere suggestion of change.


To delve deeper into the neuroscience of change, I talked recently with Dr. Richard Boyatzis, a professor with the Departments of Organizational Behavior, Psychology, and Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Boyatzis has been working in this field for over 20 years as both practitioner and researcher. Over that time, he and his team have identified three key areas that can help people adopt and adapt to change more easily.


Your brain on change


In my work with organizations undertaking change, I have seen the same tendencies repeatedly. Organizations spend lots of time and money on sophisticated communications strategies and tools to measure the adoption of change. The change project is launched with a snazzy slide show and then people are sent off to undertake the management of change with a host of specific tasks, measurements and deadlines.


According to Dr. Boyatzis, this is precisely the wrong way to introduce change. The use of metrics to introduce change triggers the “Task Positive Mode” (TPM), that part of the brain that is engaged whenever we are asked to undertake a specific task. Although the TPM does help us focus on one task, it also makes us defensive and closed off to new ideas.


Acceptance of change comes more easily to us when the brain’s “Default Mode Network” (DMN) is activated. This is the part of the brain that is typically engaged when we are daydreaming, thinking about the future or being nostalgic. Although those activities may seem in conflict with something as task-oriented as change management, Boyatzis said a human brain in DMN experiences a state of excitement which in turn helps open us up to change and new ideas.


“Neurologically speaking, every time we add another metric, another measurement, we add another thing to the dashboard, we further accentuate that part of the brain which closes people to new ideas,” Boyatzis said. “We have been trained to believe that specific goal setting helps people accept change. However, specific goal setting has been shown in the literature to inhibit performance. So, the whole thought that somehow measurement helps is absurd. People set more and more goals, more timelines, more and more deadlines. Every time we do that, we pound another nail in the coffin of the change effort we want to create or inspire.”


The antidote, Dr. Boyatzis said, is to focus on doing things that create a state of excitement in the brain. This can be done by pushing aside analytical tasks at the forefront of change initiatives, and spending more time developing emotional intelligence. Dr. Boyatzis said he does this with his MBA students by getting them to focus more on their dreams and ideal visions of the future. In Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FRMI) studies Dr. Boyatzis has led, the practice of focusing on the ideal state triggers activity in those areas of the brain associated with the Default Mode Network.


“This state of excitement creates a physiological reaction,” he said. “It releases all this energy. This allows you to be open to new ideas, to see possibilities that you’ve never seen before. You begin to focus on solutions, rather than dwelling on problems.”


A deeper understanding of resistance


One of the reasons why so many changes fail – or so the sponsors of change initiatives tell me – is resistance from individuals who must implement the change. We assume that resistance and the resisters are the enemies of change, and should be reduced or eliminated by bombarding them with messaging on the big ‘why’ of change (the carrot), or labeled as a problem to be dealt with (the stick) or “burning platform.”


Most organizational change introduces a lot of new people, plans, processes, roles and responsibilities that require constant, repeated conversation and clarification for people to commit and adapt. Too often, I watch organizations demand that their people accept any and every change immediately. As it turns out, this is just another mistake in the way we introduce change.


Dr. Boyatzis noted that the way in which change is presented to people almost inevitably creates push back. However, when we call this push back ‘resistance,’ we assume the change being offered to people is, ultimately, in their best interest. The big problem here is that change has been conceived and designed in a place far removed from the people that must accept and implement it. And that, Dr. Boyatzis said, is a recipe for disaster.


“When we say people are resisting change, it makes it sound like the change being offered to them is good or even desirable,” he said. “When people are not involved in change at the ground level, however, they are skeptical.”


Dr. Boyatzis said all change initiatives should start with a conversation with the people who are the most involved in the area being changed, and the most effective employees in the organization. They should not be told about a fully formed plan for change and encouraged to accept it; instead, they should be consulted early on and asked for their own ideas about how to conquer a problem or meet a challenge.


“If you wanted to do it correctly, you’d start by sitting down with the people most involved, and you’d ask them – how do you think we’re doing? Is our current system working? What would work better? You have to start change with a dialogue.”


Fears trump facts. Every time.


Most organizations have a very fact-based, logical business case for making change and present it to employees as something that everyone should accept. What I have observed – and what experts like Dr. Boyatzis can explain through neuroscience – is that people listening to that cold, calculated business case that has been fully developed somewhere else, interpret that information as a threat. And once their threat assessment antenna is up and twitching, they lose their ability to process the facts, logic and business case.


In his 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence – Why it Can Matter More, Daniel Goleman called this the “amygdala hijack.” This is where the emotional part of the brain floods the logical part of the brain making it impossible for the person to process the logic.


I can see this manifested in our change workshops. When the fear starts to rise, I ask participants to take a piece of paper and draw two columns. One is for ‘Fears’ and the other is ‘Facts.’ In most workshops, participants completely fill the fear column, but put very little in the fact column that directly supports those fears, many times it is the unknowns that are driving the fears. Unless we help people deal with the fears, the uncertainty and emotions of change we will not be able to get them to adopt quickly or adapt easily to change. We need to teach people to reframe the situation from problem filled to possibility filled and to be able to navigate through the situation reducing the problems and being open to all the possibilities.


 Change means more work and who needs that?


One of my least favorite organizational mantras is doing more with less. It does not really inspire people to accept the increased workload that comes so often with change and transformation. To make matters worse, we don’t take the time to explain to people exactly how it is they are supposed to do more with less. We just throw the concept out there and expect everyone to find a way of sharing the additional load, even though in many instances it’s not possible.


There are many things that cannot be changed about our work, especially if there are legal and service level agreements that bind us by contract or regulation. However, there are many other things such as deadline dates, process steps and resource allocations that could be shifted to help people do their jobs differently and better. Ignoring the stress caused by a poorly planned increase in workload can devastate employee engagement and create push back on any change initiative.


People think change is easy. It’s not.


Many of us have been caught in a change initiative of some sort that is grounded in the belief that an organization can do more with less. In fact, that is rarely true. Having less resources means having to identify things you were doing before that you no longer want to, or have to, do.


The implication as well is that true change is not easily accomplished. We can certainly do much better than the current success rate for change initiatives. However, in the minority of cases where change for the better actually occurs, it is the byproduct of a lot of hard work and focused thought.


It’s not about doing the same things as before, but giving it a different name. It’s not about forcing individuals to take on more duties with no additional support. Real change is hard and complicated and incredibly rewarding when it’s done well.




The good news is that success in change initiatives is within our grasp. This is not about re-inventing change initiatives. It is about ensuring the people ultimately left with the responsibility of changing have a greater role in the kind of change being delivered.


Change will never work when it is unleashed without warning on an unsuspecting employee group. This kind of change typically comes with little explanation about how and why the change agenda was developed, and a raft of deadlines. If we turn to neuroscience, we now know that an approach like this closes minds and breeds resistance.


We need to tap into the minds of our employees in a way that opens them to the possibility of change. We can do this by involving them at the outset to identify what’s not working, and devise the strategies to do things better, more efficiently and more effectively.


We are not born afraid of change, but we all react similarly when someone tells us that they know our work better than we do.


Talk to your employees. Ask them how things can be done better. Make them feel that they are involved not just in delivering change, but in devising it as well.