Re-wiring change: how neuroscience can help

Posted on May 1, 2014. Filed under: Linda Ray, Practical Strategies | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, lectures frequently on change management. In this post, she looks at how an understanding of the brain can help to facilitate sustainable change, and she offers some tips on how to get started.





It’s important to understand the context within which we’re operating if we are to facilitate lasting and sustainable change and if we want to support environments where innovation is valued and encouraged. We need a new view of change that sees change as an opportunity rather than something to be managed in prescriptive ways.

Many of our current change efforts are failing because we haven’t factored in this increasing complexity. Just think about it: the human brain is required to deal with far greater levels of complexity on a daily basis than the even 30 years ago. As we make the transition to this new world, there are bound to be some bumps along the way. And it’s not just ordinary people who are affected by job losses or people being asked to do more with less. The CEOs of the world’s biggest corporations are also caught up in the whirlwind. In 2009, the IBM CEO Global Survey identified rapid change as the number one problem facing business leaders. It’s complexity that most CEOs are struggling with.

Perhaps an important first step is to replace the language we use when we speak about change. The words innovating and rewiring better encompass what we mean when we describe change in today’s increasingly complex world.

According to Jeffrey Schwartz, Pablo Gaito, and Doug Lennick, in an article they wrote for strategy + business, habits are hard to change because of the way the brain manages them. They assert that this is because many conventional patterns of thinking are held in circuits associated with deep, primal parts of the brain that evolved relatively early. Primary among these is the basal ganglia, or the brain’s “habit centre,” which normally manages such semiautomatic activities as driving and walking; the amygdala, a small, deep source of strong emotions such as fear and anger; and the hypothalamus, which manages instinctive drives such as hunger, thirst, and sexual desire.

HabitsInformation processed in these parts of the brain is often not brought to conscious attention. The basal ganglia’s processing, in particular, is so rapid compared to other brain activity that it can feel physically rewarding; people tend to revert to this type of processing whenever possible. Moreover, every time the neuronal patterns in the basal ganglia are invoked, they become further entrenched; they forge connections with one another and with other functionally related brain areas, and these neural links (sometimes called “action repertoires”) become stronger and more compelling. Schwartz et al. say this helps explain why when people in a workplace talk about the way to do things, they often reinforce the link between their own neural patterns and the culture of the company. If an organisational practice triggers their basal ganglia, it can become collectively ingrained and extremely difficult to dislodge.

The brain is an energy-conserving organ that resists change because it takes cognitive effort and uses up valuable sources of oxygen and glucose. Combine this resistance with the way the basal ganglia functions to reinforce habits and it becomes clear why change is so difficult.

When we face a change, our brains automatically calculates the reward and the risk involved in order to determine whether or not it is worth doing. In other words, as we weigh risk and reward, the sum of risk value plus reward value will result in taking action or not taking action, making the change or resisting it. If we perceive the reward to be less than that of the risk, we are unlikely to engage in change. This is why it is so critical to share the purpose of the proposed change, to explain why it’s needed, and to support people to see the benefits of expending large amounts of their precious cognitive resources to engage in a particular change process.

Change often is perceived as a threat because it can activate threat circuitry associated with uncertainty. Therefore, dealing with uncertainty in a change process is absolutely critical to success. Unfortunately, it’s frequently overlooked. Think about your experiences of change efforts. How have you managed change in the past?

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Switch:How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, discuss the effort and self-control it takes to bring about change. As Heath suggests, we need self-control in order to resist going back to old patterns, something that’s extremely exhausting. His metaphor for this dynamic is a human riding atop an elephant:

elephant-and-riderThe Rider represents our analytical, planning side. The Rider decides, “I need to go somewhere, here’s the direction I want to go,” and sets off. But it’s the Elephant, the emotional side, that’s providing the power. The Rider can try to lead the Elephant, but in any direct contest of wills the Elephant is going to win—it has a six-ton advantage. So part of achieving change, in either our lives or in organizations, is aligning both sides of the brain by pointing out the direction for the Rider but also motivating the Elephant to undertake the journey. Of course, the Path the Elephant walks down matters too. High-ranking executives can shape that Path, that environment, and make the journey easier even when the Elephant is less motivated.

This dynamic explains why many large scale change efforts fail. There is an expectation it can happen quickly, but too much change too quickly will generally fail in the long-term. It’s important to start small and build momentum from there.

Challenges to Facilitating Change

There are a number of challenges to facilitating change. Clearly, in any change process, we are called on to decide whether to undertake the change in full or in part. A vast array of cognitive biases can affect any decision. Such cognitive biases significantly influence the decisions we make and can impact on the degree to which people embrace a change process. It’s important to be aware of potential biases and to question whether they are getting in the way of change.

Biased choice value can also pose a challenge to change. Choices are likely to be biased by past experiences and choices are influenced by the values we place on alternative choice options. For example, if we have made changes in the past that led to a good outcome, we will be biased to make that choice again because a positive value has been attached to it. It doesn’t necessarily matter that in the current context there might be a lot of evidence to suggest a different choice will be a better option. We tend to resist the new option based on a biased choice value and our brain’s need for certainty.

Ironic process theory suggests that under situations of mental load or stress, we will often do precisely what we are trying to avoid. When you are trying to support action towards a change, understanding previous actions or memories of past events is important to identify their reemergence at times of stress or mental load. At such times, our brains don’t have the energy to suppress unwanted memories and they come flooding back.

Focusing on solutions instead of problems

In change processes, we often focus too much attention on the problem.

One of the most important factors in facilitating change is to move away from focusing attention on the problem and instead focus on the solutions. Why is this so critical?
problemsSimply put, the more attention we pay to a problem the more we strengthen the circuitry and neuronal connections around the problem. We are drawn towards thinking about and wanting to explore the dimensions of what’s wrong rather than work towards a solution because it takes much less cognitive effort to do so. This is because when we consider a problem we have many maps to draw on from past experience. On the other hand, thinking through solutions takes more energy and creates a greater sense of uncertainty.

As leaders, we need to be ‘thinking about our thinking’ and noticing when we, or others, are paying too much attention to a problem rather than focusing on a solution. We strengthen what we focus on. By being solutions-focused, we develop and strengthen new neural pathways associated with a goal or an intention.

Tips for facilitating sustainable change

  • Try using different language. Many people are ‘change weary’. Replace change with innovation or rewiring. Think about change as being agile or frame it up as an experiment.
  • Start small rather than overwhelming people with a big change agenda.
  • Celebrate the ‘small wins’ along the way.
  • Be clear about the potential rewards of a change and demonstrate you also are aware of the risks and have planned for them.
  • Do an audit of any potential cognitive biases that might sabotage a change effort and declare these as potential conflicts of interest.
  • Identify when a biased choice value might be enticing you to do more of the same rather than to try something new.
  • Notice if ironic process theory might be taking you back to old ways of doing things and name when this is happening to guard against it.
  • Remain solution focused. Notice when you get stuck in the problem and when it’s time to move on.




Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director ofneuresource groupThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda has gained recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’.















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