The Neuroscience of Change Influences Organization Transformation

Change management is a complex affair. Successful organization change requires a thorough understanding of past and current market conditions, organization structure, and operational efficiency. But perhaps the most important thing change leaders must grasp is the way the human mind reacts to change.

Leaders new to change management are often surprised by how difficult it can be to orchestrate even seemingly straightforward changes. A change in procedure that can be explained in five minutes in the boardroom may take months to implement. It may be met with significant resistance on the part of employees and other stakeholders, which only serves to prolong the transition.

Why is change so difficult? As it turns out, many of the challenges associated with organizational change have their basis in the brain itself. Resistance to change is literally hardwired into our minds. Understanding the neuroscience of change is therefore essential to change management. When we know how and why the brain reacts to change, we can take steps to lessen resistance and make the entire process go more smoothly.

The Neuroscience of Change

As we move through everyday life, our brains get accustomed to a certain way of thinking. When some new condition comes along that does not jibe with this way of thinking, it creates a sort of psychological dissonance. In his blog, The Neuroscience Challenge of Organizational Change, Dr. Dustin Jackson explains that this disruption actually happens at a neurological level as the brain recognizes a discrepancy between anticipated and actual reality.

Neuroscientists have identified two core ways in which the brain processes information. One system is reflexive in nature and allows us to perform familiar activities in a more or less automatic way. It’s how we think when we are in our comfort zones. Because being in this system requires little energy, it allows us to move through the day easily and accomplish what we need to do without feeling overly stressed or challenged.

The other core way our brains process information, on the other hand, is reflective and kicks in when we enter situations that require critical thinking and analytical processing. This way of thinking requires a lot of energy and thus can entail significant psychological discomfort and stress.

How the Brain Responds to Change in an Organization

When we manage change in an organization, we are actually asking the brain to get out of its comfort zone and activate in new ways. When change happens, we are thus dealing with a whole lot of individuals whose reflexive way of thinking—where they’ve reached a stasis or comfort zone, a degree of predictability or stability—is being disrupted at a neurological level.

Individuals respond differently to the stimulus of change. For some people, activating new thought patterns is exciting, because they get to do something different and new. For other people, it’s extremely stressful.  A person whose brain does not easily switch from the reflexive to the reflective way of thinking is likely to find change of any kind difficult, confusing, and frustrating. This is where we start to see resistance to change.

If change is successful, the brain will eventually reprogram itself to start to accept the new environment and ways of working as normal. It will create new comfort zones and new pathways or ways of working that accept the new normal as being comfortable, good, or acceptable. However, if an individual can’t reach that state of comfort with the new normal, they will never adapt fully to the change. The person is left living or working in an organizational system or construct where they don’t ever feel at ease again. It can lead to turnover, poor productivity, negativity, loss of engagement, and similar issues.

Applying Neuroscience to Change Management

The implications of the neuroscience of change to organization transformation are significant. Change leaders must first of all appreciate how people think. Leaders need to understand that change is a personal journey for a lot of people, not just in an esoteric sense but physiologically. There is science behind the fact that the brain has to go through changes to make sense of a new reality. And, leaders need to fully grasp how important it is to take organization change to a personal level. Change must be processed and accepted by the individuals in an organization before it becomes status quo in the organization.

For a leader, asking these questions can help bring to light areas that may need attention when it comes to helping the people in your organization adapt to change:

  • What are you doing in your change work and planning to help people make that neurological shift so they’re not living in a state of psychological discomfort, either initially or ongoing?
  • Do you have tools and means to help your organization address questions around change adoption and overcoming resistance?

Sometimes people can’t adapt to a change because it’s not in alignment with their value system, or they don’t have a certain technical skill. But at other times it’s simply because they aren’t given the psychological or neurological reprogramming time they need to adapt well to the change. By understanding the neuroscience of change, we can structure change in ways that support this reprogramming process. This helps organization members come out on the other side, regain their confidence, and understand what’s required of them so they can feel and speak more positively about the new situation, and be more productive and engaged in their work.