Brain-Friendly Change Management

Using Neuroscience to Overcome your Organization's Resistance to Change

By | May 21, 2024

Change is uncomfortable. And more often than not, the reaction to an unexpected or unwelcome change is resistance. Unfortunately, change is a part of our lives and is essential to every organization’s growth. It’s inevitable. But negative reactions don’t have to be. The key is for leaders to understand how to navigate change in a way that makes it work for them and their organizations.

The Brain and Change

Studies in the field of neuroscience have uncovered how the brain reacts to change. The amygdala (the emotional part of the brain) was the first to evolve, followed by the rational and logical parts. Because of this, we primarily react to change emotionally. In fact, the brain’s default response to the uncertainty and ambiguity that often accompanies change is fear. This fear triggers a stress response – often known as the fight, flight, or freeze response.

The Fight Response

Characterized by aggressive or confrontational behavior when facing a threat.

The Flight Response

Characterized by the strong desire to evade or escape a perceived threat.

Freeze response to change

The Freeze Response

Characterized by feeling “stuck” and powerless to take action.

Most leaders may approach navigating change at their organization with the “ripping off the bandaid” approach – it’s best to just do it quickly and get it over with. Knowing how the brain is bound to react, it’s unsurprising to see that 70% of all change initiatives fail. The fear and resistance that result from the stress response triggered by the brain make it challenging to cultivate the mindset, conditions, and environment necessary to support a successful change effort.

Instead of rushing to implement change, leaders are more likely to succeed by taking the opposite approach. Successfully navigating change takes time, planning, and leveraging what we know about the brain to our advantage.

The Importance of Change Management

In recent years, we have faced an unprecedented number of changes to all aspects of our lives – the home, the workplace, technology, and beyond. One of the reasons we’ve struggled so hard to adapt is that many of these changes have been sudden. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, created unprecedented changes in the ways we work.

Change management is the process of introducing and implementing a change over time. While there are numerous theories on how best to go about this process, all of them have some key pieces in common.

1. Start With “Why”

The crucial first step in any change management process is to ensure that employees understand not just what is changing but also why these changes are necessary.

When changes are introduced in the workplace without a clear explanation, it activates the brain’s threat response and creates resistance. By communicating the “why” behind the change, leaders can help their followers get out of the amygdala and into the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking and decision making.

It also enables employees to see their role within the bigger picture, and provides a sense of purpose and belonging. When people see their work contributing to a meaningful goal, they’re less likely to resist.

2. Identify Early Adopters and Early Resisters to Change

Creating early awareness of the change and identifying key champions is integral to the start of the change management process. These early champions, often called “early adopters,” will be essential to persuading others to join the change effort and moving the needle towards success.

Likewise, it’s important to identify early resistors to change. Being aware of who may oppose the effort and, more importantly, why they may oppose the effort, will help you and your champions know how to overcome resistance.

3. Involve Employees in Decision-Making Around Change

When people are told they have to do something, they are more likely to resist. The best way to avoid the negative reactions that come with change is to bring others along with you. Involving employees in decision-making around the change can help increase the success of the initiative by 15%.

Finding ways to incorporate everyone’s voice – especially those most impacted by the change – into the implementation plan can increase trust and buy-in and help your organization feel more informed and prepared. This way, rather than feeling like the change is something that is happening to them, your team feels like an important part of making it successful.

4. Give Employees the Skills to Change

Knowing about the change and knowing how to change are two very different things. It’s not enough for your employees to be aware of the changes that are coming – they must also know how to change. This may take several different forms, but the key is to arm every person affected by the change in your organization with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to successfully implement the change.

For example, imagine your company is rolling out a new performance review process. Instead of just letting your employees know that the process is changing, you set them up for a successful transition by providing them with guides on how to use the new goal tracking system, scheduling open office hours to answer questions, and ensuring every leader is trained on the new system and process. These simple actions arm your people with the tools and resources they need to implement the change and lower the risk of change resistance and paralysis.

5. Celebrate Small Wins

Breaking the change process into phases, and outlining a clear strategy for each phase, is crucial to success. When the brain knows what to expect and how to go about the next steps, it leaves fewer opportunities for it to fill in the gaps with fear and resistance. Focusing on small wins allows employees to see immediate results and increases their support for and commitment to change. This “progress principle,” a term coined by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer in 2011, shows that even making a small amount of progress can do wonders to boost employee motivation, emotions, and perceptions.

6. Monitor and Reinforce New Behaviors

Research shows that gathering consistent feedback from employees about the change and the implementation process can increase the success of the initiative by 32%. Not only will this help leaders monitor the progress of the change management process and gather valuable insight into key supports and blockers of success, but it also allows employees to feel heard and increase their commitment to change.

Similarly, to help sustain the success of the change, reinforcement is required. Celebrating the small wins mentioned earlier and consistently reminding people of the why and how of the change initiative are integral in maintaining commitment and progress levels.

The Benefits of Brain-Friendly Change Management

The brain naturally hates change. But with careful planning, consideration, and collaboration, leaders and organizations can capitalize on the benefits of brain-friendly change management, including:

    • Decrease resistance and negativity
    • Increase buy-in and commitment
    • Sustained motivation and morale

Sometimes, the changes we experience can’t be planned for. Things happen unexpectedly that require us to make a shift. However, even in these instances, leaders can leverage brain-friendly change management principles and skills to make the process smoother. By partnering with your people and including them as part of the process, you can create an environment that embraces change rather than resists it.

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