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How To Optimize The Brain’s Response To Change

Why do most change management efforts fail?

Life is about change. To survive, we must change; we must continue to adapt. Whether we like it or not, there is only one thing we can be certain of: that things will remain changing in ways we cannot foresee or forecast.

Although we could never really predict or have absolute certainty about the future, the world used to offer a greater sense of stability and definitely seemed to be moving more slowly. Long-term goals and strategic plans provided a reasonable degree of assurance. Product life cycles lasted longer and employees were making nearly life-long career commitments to one organization.

In today’s rapidly advancing and highly volatile business environment, any organization’s continuity depends on new adaptation skills — in particular, a new mindset that allows the shift from carrying the responsibility to the ability to respond. Leading organizations are being forced to figure out how to adjust their respective visions to be able to implement innovative strategies in order to stay relevant in the ultra-competitive race to the top. That in itself wreaks havoc and disrupts the status quo, which in turn breeds fear and uncertainty, creating distraction and loss of productivity. Why?

The key aim of the brain is survival. Its protective mechanisms keep us alive and got us where we are today, yet they are becoming less effective in today’s corporate world. And that is the main problem. Thanks to neuroscience, a field of study that helps us understand how our brain works and the impact of change on its performance, we know today that the brain perceives uncertainty, volatility, ambiguity and unpredictability the same way as it would when it registers a threat of a lion in the savannah. It activates the exact same part of the brain and triggers the same reaction — an acute stress response (aka fight or flight response) as if we were faced with actual life-threatening concern.

Then, unpredictability and uncontrollability, in particular, create a malicious combination with which our brain finds it extremely difficult to deal. This in return further elevates stress levels and produces undesirable emotions that we would rather avoid. Stress also tends to alter our perception of reality and defaults us to unproductive ways of being. And if that was not enough, the brain does not know the difference between the thought about the experience and the experience itself. Go figure!

The Impact of Change On The Brain

• Our brain is innately wired to protect us — hence its resistance to change.

• Our brain is wired for negativity, as it increases our chances of survival.

• Our brain runs on autopilot by creating habits to preserve energy. Any learning activity cost our brain at least 25% more energy than a task it can do on autopilot.

• Our brain is focused on minimizing threats and maximizing rewards. Minimizing a threat is a much more effective motivator.

• Any news, even bad news, is perceived as better than no news.

• Knowing prevents rumination and allows us to plan.

• Not knowing triggers the brain to start running its predictive script by filling the gaps of missing information and creating suitable interpretations of the situation, aka creating a new storyline.

• To assure predictability, the brain secures the future by learning from the past.

Without fully appreciating those invisible dynamics continuously taking place inside of our brain, we have no chance to endure or make the best out of what the change process has to offer. Key points to keep in mind:

• We cannot make any sustainable changes without changing our brain neuropathways.

• To create new results, we must utilize what we know about the brain; otherwise, our efforts will not generate the outcomes we desire.

• To change unproductive habits, we need to replace them with new ones by consciously and repetitively engaging our thinking brain in the creation of a new blueprint of the desired result.

• Our personality influences our effectiveness in dealing with change. Self-awareness is key.

What Can We Do?

Fortunately, neuroscience also provides insights into what we can practice to help the brain to settle down and focus when challenged by uncertainty. As always, small things make a big difference. Here are the things we can do:

• Develop our own insights about why change is needed.

• Break down long-term goals into manageable chunks that can be achieved in a short timeframe.

• Measure our own performance and that of others. According to Mormon leader Thomas S. Monson, “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.”

• Seek and provide regular updates.

• Pay attention. By going unconscious, we invite our brain to revert back to what is habituated to.

• Celebrate victories — even the smallest ones. The accomplishment of small, actionable steps brings us closer to achieving our long-term goals.

• Find alternative ways to reduce stress. Many undesirable behaviors are just coping mechanisms. If we don’t find a way to release them, it is more likely we will create more stress by keeping a lid on it.

Neuroscientist Sam Harris notes, “My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.” That said, we can keep hitting the wall and complain about the way things are or, even worse, how they are supposed to be — or we can do something different — something we have never done before — and see where it will take us.

There is no magic bullet to dealing with change. Ultimately, it requires alteration of neural pathways in our brains. New solutions cannot be created in old ways. Perhaps reframing uncertainty to curiosity can inspire us to act differently and eventually to come up against ourselves and our own old habits.


Originally published at Forbes


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