How to change your mind: a new view on change management

How to change your mind: a new view on change management

Written By: Mary Hykel Hunt article - IQx2 Ltd

Change is inevitable. So why are most of us so resistant to it? What is it about change that makes us sigh and roll our eyes, dig our heels in and want to stay just as we are?

Maybe the root of the word ‘change’ gives us a clue. The word ‘change’ came down to us via Latin from an earlier Indo-European root known as ‘kemb-‘, which means ‘to curve’ or ‘make crooked’. To change, then, literally means to stop going in a straight line and go in a different direction – and we humans, habit-driven as we are, don’t like that, even if there’s a clear benefit to be gained from the change. For instance, in studies of patients who’ve undergone coronary bypass surgery, on average only one in nine adopts healthier lifestyle habits afterwards. Even when it’s a matter of life and death, we can resist change. So what chance is there for implementing necessary change in business? How do we make such change palatable?

Useful answers to such questions are coming from an unusual direction: neuroscience. Current research in this field is revealing the dynamics underpinning our resistance to change. When asked why they dislike change, people will often say it’s because it usually means effort. Change forces us out of our comfort zones, obliges us to think and act differently. Change is also challenging because it opens us up to uncertainty, doubt, feelings of incompetence, possibility of failure – uncomfortable feelings to experience, so no wonder we try to avoid them.  But quite why does change or the notion of change cause us to react this way? How do we overcome it?

According to current neuro research1, it turns out that change literally is a pain – it causes actual physiological discomfort, because, confronted by having to do something differently, we have to switch between two different parts of the brain, one of which requires much more energy to operate than the other. And we feel that energetic cost, usually as a feeling of discomfort, although usually at a subconscious level.

It works like this: once we’ve become accustomed to a way of doing things, we hand the associated mental activity over to our automatic pilot, otherwise known as the basal ganglia of the brain. This part of the brain handles routines and habituated activity without placing much energy demand on our system. Anything that we’ve learned to do ‘by heart’ gets handled from here. Driving a car is a good example; I can drive ‘without thinking’, because Captain Basal Ganglia is in the driving seat, whilst I listen to/harangue John Humphrys on the Today programme on the radio and travel umpteen miles without noticing.

However, put me and my car in a foreign country where I have to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of a road festooned with unfamiliar road signs in strange languages, and Captain Basal Ganglia will rapidly defer to Captain Prefrontal Cortex, who brings to bear a whole different approach – one of focus and concentration, which costs a lot more in terms of energy – literally. It requires a lot of effort in terms of focus and concentration – a metabolic energy cost to my system, likely resulting in stress and fatigue. The amount of attentional effort required to drive my car on the ‘wrong’ side of the road can create sufficient feelings of discomfort that I try to avoid it, although I may not be fully aware that I’m trying to avoid it. All I may know of what’s going on subconsciously is that I’m feeling grumpy.

Added to this, when confronted by change, another brain function also tends to kick in, generated by the orbital frontal cortex, which is closely connected with the brain’s fear circuitry, located in the amygdala. Put simply, if what happens isn’t what I’ve learned to expect, then a fear signal fires off, creating an anxiety response, and I’ll become more emotional and less rational. So I’ll try even harder to avoid driving that car on the wrong side of the road (and become even more grumpy). All of this is happening at a subconscious level, of course.  All I’ll know is that I’m feeling uneasy or uncomfortable about having to do something differently, and I’ll want to resist. That resistance is likely to be expressed emotionally rather than rationally, or I may cloak my emotional response with an apparently rational reason – but the unconscious motivator will be emotional at root.

All very interesting, but what has this to do with business? Well, this new research in neuroscience is beginning to explain why conventional approaches to change management don’t work particularly well in the long run1. They don’t deal well with what’s really giving rise to the resistance. Reward and threat methods or ‘empathise and persuade’ approaches aren’t particularly effective, because they tend to reinforce the problems around change, such as uncertainty and fear, rather than solve them. Telling me I’ll get a performance bonus if I hit a target triggers the ‘What if I don’t?’ fear and carries an implicit threat about what happens if I fail. This is a form of negative motivation, which works against itself in the long run, simply because of its fear base. Fear isn’t a sustaining emotion; it erodes, rather than builds, confidence.  Similarly with the empathy/persuade approach: empathising with my concerns about an impending change and then trying to ‘get me on board’ often fails because it doesn’t ring true. The underlying thought process tends to be, “Well, you’re going to do this anyway, regardless of what I say, so why are you pretending to care?”

The application of neuroscience to business is helping us understand more about how we operate when confronted by change, and out of this new understanding are emerging new approaches to managing change. Instead of cajoling or threatening or seeking to incentivise, solution-focused questioning techniques that facilitate self-produced insights are now thought to offer more positive and long-lasting changes, in both personal and business contexts, because they can encourage positive perceptual shifts that can result in changes in actual brain structure, instead of trying to create changes in behaviour from the outside in.  



If you’re interested in how this type of new thinking can help your business, Neale Horizons runs a bi-weekly meeting called Quantum Business Breaks where business people get to meet cutting edge ideas that can help them achieve more with less effort.  For more information, contact Neale Horizons on 01823 478432 or CLICK HERE to book your place today!

Released On 19th Sep 2015

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