Easing the Pain of Change

Changing behaviour within organisations is much more difficult than we like to think it is.

Now we can understand why this is, thanks to the integration of psychology and neuroscience. What has been discovered is that change is pain; it genuinely provokes discomfort and zaps our energy.

Our brains have developed a useful capacity to detect ‘errors’, those perceived differences between expectations and actuality. When we have to remember how to use a new progamme for instance, our brain is registering a mismatch. This would show up on an MRI scan as increased activity in his amygdala or  ‘old brain’, a spot closely connected to the fear circuitry. When activated, the amygdala draws metabolic energy away from the prefrontal lobe where our higher intellectual functioning is generated. Outwardly, this can show up as frustration, and resistant behaviour.

That means the unfamiliar and the new not only increase our discomfort and stress, they actually decrease logical or higher thinking.

So how can we go about lessening the pain and facilitating organisational change? The answer is to give time and attention to new ideas, and to sustain reminders and reinforcement until the mental circuitry changes, and the ideas are adopted. Repeated, purposeful and focussed attention can lead to self-awareness and lasting change.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex requires concentration to process new information, so removing everyday routines to focus on something —such as an off-site workshop —provides an ideal environment.

Having secured people’s attention, give them the big picture. When allowed to focus, and given a vision, our brains are encouraged to contribute —much like when we read a novel, we picture the characters, and imagine dozens of details.

When powerful visions are shared in organisations, we automatically begin to fill in the spaces, to imagine opportunities and solutions. We are inspired to co-create the picture —conditions ripe for ‘moments of insight’ —those dazzling flashes of understanding or ‘ah ha’ moments when we suddenly get it, and join the dots.

Brain scans show sudden bursts of high-frequency gamma waves just prior to moments of new understanding. This suggests a complex set of new connections is being created in the brain. With it comes a rush of adrenaline like neurotransmitters, like a turbo charged pin-ball machine hitting all the bells. These moments of insight are powerful motivators that counter resistance, and propel change.

Even after a popular and engaging workshop, most people find it hard to hold onto new learning. Follow-up coaching has been found to be a powerful adjunct to training and development. One-on-one sessions accelerate changes to the brain’s circuitry, measuring nearly three times more effect than that of training alone.

Coaching also encourages insights, because coupled with good process, it is focussed time, away from other demands. These elements together provide a fertile environment where moments of insight are more likely to occur.

Reference: The Neuroscience of Leadership by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz http://www.strategy-business.com/press/article/06207.

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