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Organizational Change and the Human Brain


Change in organizations is pretty much a constant in today’s business environment. Globalization, changing market dynamics, evolving technology, and a myriad of other factors create the need for change, and human emotions – more precisely, the response of human brains – create many of the barriers to successful change implementation.

In my work with workshop participants and coaching/consulting engagements, I see both change done well and change gone awry. When it goes well, leaders have done the preparatory and communication work necessary to successfully navigate the dangerous emotional territory created by change. When it does not go well, it is generally because leaders have not fully appreciated or planned for the emotional context in which they are working.

Here are three articles I have used to help me to develop better understanding and insight into the human component of “change management.”

This article, contains some good tips for thinking about, planning for, and implementing a change.

Checklist for Brain-Friendly Change Management

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.

I see this article as primarily an promotional article about an event where the topics of change and change management will be discussed at greater length, and still, it offers some good insights into what leaders should consider as they think about organizational change.

This is Your Brain on Organizational Change – Walter McFarland

For many years, the training field has viewed organizational change as a process that is both linear and sequential. Instead, change has revealed itself to be non-linear and chaotic. It’s time to find a new model — one that incorporates insights from neuroscience research and takes into account 21st century workplace dynamics and realities.

And finally, the article that is my favorite in this particular list. This article provides deeper insights into how our brains respond to social dynamics caused by organizational change. I see the concepts in this article as foundational for wise leaders who want to learn how to successfully drive change through their teams.

Managing with the Brain in Mind

Although a job is often regarded as a purely economic transaction, in which people exchange their labor for financial compensation, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system. Like the experiment participants whose avatars were left out of the game, people who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work — for example, when they are reprimanded, given an assignment that seems unworthy, or told to take a pay cut — experience it as a neural impulse, as powerful and painful as a blow to the head. Most people who work in companies learn to rationalize or temper their reactions; they “suck it up,” as the common parlance puts it. But they also limit their commitment and engagement. They become purely transactional employees, reluctant to give more of themselves to the company, because the social context stands in their way.

If you know of other good resources, please leave a comment below with your suggestions.

photo credit: perpetualplum via photopin cc

Five Things Leaders Can Do to Champion Change

Smart leaders know that they don’t “make” a change happen. They understand that the people in their organization do the work, change behaviors, and, ultimately, make the change happen. They see that that their role is to make the change meaningful and easier to accept. Smart leaders champion change.

Let’s look at five things smart leaders do to champion change.

1. They sell more than they tell

Smart leaders know how to sell their ideas. They understand that “telling” someone what’s going to happen is very different from “selling” them on the idea. I do not suggest that smart leaders use so called “high-pressure” sales tactics. By selling, I mean that they look for ways to get people emotionally committed to the change.

They tell stories, they paint a vision of a better future, and they engage positive emotions for people. They stay focused on the benefits rather than the costs. They understand that people need time to adjust to and to accept the change. They work to inspire buy-in in stead of compliance.

2. They help people tune-in to WII-FM

Sales and marketing professionals talk about the radio station that most people tune-in to on a daily basis. They know about WII-FM (What’s in it for me?).

If it’s true about people in the marketplace, then it’s true about people in the workplace. Smart leaders know how to answer the question on every employee’s mind: “What’s in it for me?”

Dr. Aubrey Daniels, noted behavioral analyst and author of Bringing Out the Best in People, makes two great comments regarding the process of change acceptance:

  • “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed,” and
  • “People don’t resist change if the change provides immediate positive consequences to them.”

Smart leaders know that people are generally more willing to do things that bring personal benefit than they are to do things that benefit the organization. They take a pragmatic, not a cynical or negative, view of human nature. They see people for who they are and work to adjust their strategy to go with — not against — the natural drives of people in their organization.

3. They work through the “head grapes”

Every organization has a grapevine — an unofficial communication channel that often moves faster than official ones. You might call the people who other people listen to, and therefore influence the grapevine, the “head grapes.”

Smart leaders are not so impressed with themselves that they believe they have to do all of the influencing.

They know that the head grapes have more personal influence within certain employee groups than they do. They understand leadership is about trust and relationship; it is not about position. Recognizing this fact, they seek out influencers in the organization to make things happen rather than to bring recognition to themselves.

They strive to get the influencers onboard with the change. They understand the power of relationships, and they put that power to work. They work with the head grapes to affect change so that they don’t have to push against the head grapes’ resistance.

4. They break the change into “bite-sized” pieces

Smart leaders understand that people need both information about the reason behind the change and time to adjust to it. They also realize that they can’t wait forever to get everyone to commit to the new direction. So, they break big changes into small pieces that people are more likely to accept quickly.

By moving forward in small steps, smart leaders move their organizations with frequent, continual, and steady forward progress rather than through periodic big jumps.

5. They build positive momentum

When they break larger changes into smaller, more manageable, bite-sized pieces, smart leaders position themselves to build positive forward momentum. Smart leaders know that an early failure or setback can create more resistance later — even if they do manage to overcome it.

Building a record of quick, early wins helps people accept the upsets that will happen on the way to success. Smart leaders understand the power of momentum — either positive or negative. They break changes into small pieces that improve their odds of success, and then they pick the highest probability of success step as their first move.