Checklist for Brain-Friendly Change Management
This week, the participants in the 2012 Diploma of the Neuroscience of Leadership program join together to offer their solutions for brain-friendly change.
More than twenty years ago, organisational behavioral experts Kenneth Thompson and Fred Luthans noted that a person’s reaction to organisational change “can be so excessive and immediate, that some researchers have suggested it may be easier to start a completely new organization than to try to change an existing one.” This “human resistance to change,” is one of the most important issues facing the field of organisational change.
In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Walter McFarland states that the way to effectively engage the support and creativity of a company’s employees during an organisational change lies within the field of neuroscience.
After spending nearly a year studying how the brain works and the ways this new knowledge may be applied to the workplace, the 2012 NeuroCapability ‘thought-leaders’ participated in an informal survey about their ideas on the best ways to implement organisational change. All have different educational backgrounds and work in a variety of positions across business, non-profit, and government sectors. From this wide range of experience, everyone agrees that current approaches don’t work well and that there will never be a one-size fits-all solution to manage complex change. However, while acknowledging that each situation is unique, the students presented surprisingly uniform insights about how to use current neuroscience research in creating a new “best practice” for change management.
We share their suggestions in the check-list below. It’s just the beginning of what we hope will become a lively ongoing discussion with managers and change leaders. From time to time, we’ll highlight aspects of the issues you raise. Please join in and share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below. We welcome your engagement.
Prime for change
All the participants acknowledge that priming for change is key. Keeping positive and communicating regularly will create a sense of certainty that will best allow for success. It’s also important to recognise that different change contexts will require tailored approaches. What’s needed for change in a small team will be different from what’s needed for a structural change in a large organisation. Change is constant, and change that you can predict and prepare for is quite different to change that occurs stealthily on a daily basis.
Examine the advantages and disadvantages of instituting a change plan. Identify what already works well and be sure to keep it. Incremental change will feel less threatening to those affected by it and more manageable for those called upon to implement it.
Have a clear purpose
Once you’ve recognised the need for change and established the groundwork by priming for change in a positive solution-focussed way, it is important to lead with ‘Why’. Authenticity in intent will serve your purpose better than any fancy PR campaign. Clearly and openly communicate what the benefits of change will be from a personal level as well as for the organisation. Do this early on.
Reframing is useful. Encourage staff to reflect on what may be happening to them as individuals and to the organisation as a whole and to consider how the proposed changes will ultimately be better for themselves and the business.
Create the right environment
The survey participants agree that the need to create a “burning platform” can interfere with forward momentum. This is because it can be viewed as a threat, which in turn, stops people from functioning well and reduces their capacity for thinking and problem-solving. Emotions are pivotal to engagement. It’s therefore important to aim to create an environment that maximises reward and minimises threat.
While acknowledging that the change is designed to deliver a particular outcome, staying curious and involved throughout and remaining open to new ways of meeting the direction and purpose is critically important for engagement. Early adopters of the positive change can work to communicate what they are doing to others, thus creating a cascading effect within the organisation. Next, deepen new learning and behaviour with quality follow-up and well-handled feedback conversations.
And don’t forget to celebrate the wins!
Utilise the SCARF model
Neuroscience research has identified key needs that help employees better navigate the social world in the workplace. These needs include status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness—the foundation of the SCARF model. Complete an assessment of issues likely to trigger threat responses and develop strategies that can create reward responses for each of the ‘need’ domains. Remember that different people are motivated in different ways. Work through challenges by education and promotion of emotional regulation strategies.
What will progress look like? What change models will be used? Map out the path to change—provide guidance on how to bridge the gap from current state to future state.
Construct small chunks on the change path in order to give people a sense of satisfaction and completion as they progress. This will help to embed new behaviours that are practiced in order to achieve the short term “chunks of change”. Measure and share attainment of the milestones.
Guide individuals and teams through the change processes so that team members feel connected and focused on what’s next. Facilitate new insights and reinforce new effective behaviors.
Support teams and leaders
Talking about the change is one way to focus attention on it. It also gives a manager the chance to understand if employees are responding well. Leaders need to understand the emotional and cognitive challenges in change in order to institute brain-friendly processes. Leading change means living the change. Leaders need to demonstrate examples of how they’ve incorporated changes themselves and show that they are personally engaged in the process.
Team-based discussions support development of intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation for change. Participation at each level of staff and management will promote ownership of new practices. Make sure there are opportunities for employees to ask questions and discuss their role in the change process.
It goes without saying that trust is critical. Not only does trust create a positive environment for change, but it gives permission for individuals and groups to think more creatively. This kind of participation allows for better ownership of recommendations, processes and outcomes. Empathy is also key. As a change leader you need to understand what is happening to individuals and teams through each step of the process.
Open the lines of communication and talk early, often, openly, and honestly about the need for change and the vision for the future. Invite others to share in this vision and build commitment by facilitating conversations where employees can offer input.
Recognise and celebrate every step you make on the journey—even the small ones.
Apply different strategies
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to change. Some people are just naturally more reward-driven while others are more risk focused. At the time of implementing change, a manager should try to understand what motivates each employee and find ways to accommodate both styles. This approach will help to develop intrinsic motivation. Also, as the process unfolds, revisit the plan regularly and question what’s been effective and what hasn’t. It might be necessary to adapt the original vision for how to move forward with new learning and a fresh perspective. Stay positive and solution-focused. Be sure to recognise and promote the formation of new mental maps.
It’s important to identify the natural ‘change leaders’ in the organisation and allow them to lead. A sound strategy for moving forward combined with autonomy will create strong ‘buy-in’ and support from these important employees. Don’t forget to tie everything back to the vision, and make sure to create opportunities for short term wins.
Develop attentional intelligence
All of the participants agree that integrating change requires continual attention in order to be successful. Repeated and directed attention—continual reinforcement—is key to wire in the new behaviour and build habits. Be self-aware of your own biases and habits, and be sensitive to those of others.
Think of building attentional intelligence and mindfulness as a progressive process. And don’t forget to set aside time for reflection and checking in both with yourself and with others. This kind of ‘downtime’ is when some of the best ideas emerge.
Please continue the discussion. What brain-friendly strategies do you use to implement change and manage complexity?
The Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership will benefit any person in a leadership position, whether new to leadership or with considerable leadership experience. Organisations may also benefit from a whole management team taking the course and collaboratively applying the learning in their workplace context. Contact us about a customised program for your organisation.