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4 Brain-Friendly Ways to Manage Change in the Workplace

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Change is good... you go first!  Why are people so resistant to change even when we know the current way of doing things isn't working?  

We’ve been grappling with the concept of change since 500 BC. Everyone recognizes names like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, but Heraclitus is a lesser-known philosopher. Heraclitus rambled around Ephasus long before Socrates and was known as the weeping philosopher because he was so sad and lonely.  Little is known about his early life and education, but he regarded himself as a pioneer of wisdom.

Heraclitus held three pretty profound views:

(1)  Everything is constantly changing.

(2) Opposite things are identical.  

(3) everything is and is not at the same time.

In other words, Heraclitus made the assertion that "life is flux" (panta rhei in Greek, meaning all things change. One of his more notable ideas was that ever-present change is the fundamental essence of the universe, he once said,

"No man ever steps in the same river twice. The river is never the same river twice; the man is never the same man twice"

Leadership is about leading, and many times that includes leading people through change. People may chuckle at the old saying that the only constant in business is change, but implementing change is rarely fun or funny.  Resistance can range from avoidance or passive/aggressive behavior all the way to outright defiance and hostility.

Prior to making any kind of organizational change that will affect others, it’s important for leaders to identify not just what the specific changes include, but also who the changes will impact and how they might perceive the change. When change is forced upon people without helping them understand why the change is necessary, what the change includes and how their jobs/work will be affected, the uncertainty and unknowns create anxiety.  

The human brain has naturally evolved to seek out certainty and avoid threats. So, when change is introduced, it’s both uncertain and threatening. Even if intellectually, we know that the change could be a good thing, the brain automatically perceives it as a threat to either psychological safety or social status.

To understand what is happening upstairs when you’re struggling with change, you have to know about the basal ganglia, the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is where all your executive functioning happens. Because it handles all of the big thinking, it burns a lot of fuel, or glucose. Glucose isn’t stored in the brain and it’s expensive for the body to produce. While we’d all like to think the prefrontal cortex is in charge most of the time, it requires too much energy to operate constantly.

Most of our daily activities, including many work-related tasks, are controlled by a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia doesn't consume as much fuel as the prefrontal cortex because the habitual, repetitive tasks that we do without even thinking about it – brushing your teeth, tying your shoes, typing an email – take much less mental energy and much less glucose. Many of our daily activities, including many of our work habits, require very little conscious thought. The more routine they are the more hardwired they are in the brain.

When the brain senses a change, it switches off the autopilot and wakes the prefrontal cortex up to deal with the uncertainty. Consequently, the prefrontal cortex triggers the amygdala to be on standby for fight or flight. That tug of war between the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex explains why we hate change. Doing what we’ve always done is far more comfortable and predictable and takes far less energy than tackling the unknown. It's no wonder that logic isn't enough to get employees to buy in to the latest proposed organizational change! 

But, as complex as the brain is, we have the power to normalize resistance to change. If you are introducing change in your organization or if you’re on the receiving end of proposed change, a few simple tips can make it more brain-friendly.

1. Make the unfamiliar familiar If you show people two picture of themselves - one an accurate representation and the other a reversed image - people will find the reversed image more appealing. Why? Because it's more familiar.  It's the image they see in the mirror every day. The brain instinctively processes uncertainty as a threat. Anything that is more familiar will become less threatening.  Clear, consistent communication is essential.  

2. Invite people to create change No one likes forced change, but most of us embrace change we create ourselves. From a neuroscience perspective, at the moment when someone chooses change, brain scans show a tremendous amount of activity as insight develops and new neural connections are formed. in addition, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like dopamine and adrenaline that create a natural "high" positively associated with the change experience. Rather than dictating change, invite people to participate in creating change.

3. Keep it simple. The prefrontal cortex can deal well with only a few concepts at one time. Help people understand the purpose of the change as well as the benefits with two or three key points.   More than that will most likely activate the amygdala and set off a chain reaction of stress reactions.  

4. Don't "sugar coat" the sell.  It might be tempting to present the change with overly optimistic outcomes or unrealistic advantages. Don't do it.  The prefrontal cortex is always on guard for signals of danger - including deception. When it senses something too good to be true, it triggers the survival brain to be on high alert and puts the thinking brain on pause until the anxiety passes.   



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