The Science behind change

The Science behind change

Ellen Hake works with large corporates in analysing, planning and executing successful change based on how the human brain deals with change. With her customary ‘light touch’ Hake was quickly able to help the audience understand WHY some of the things we already know about communication work from a brain-based point of view.

For example:

• Participation and involvement help people manage change successfully

• People are biologically hard-wired to be threatened by change

• When threatened, people are less able to focus, to use their higher-level thinking and to solve problems through insight

• Managing change is not a one-off event or communication; it requires time and repetition

• Let people know as much as you can as soon as you can

• People are more likely to trust leaders if they communicate in plain language

Hake told us: “The underlying reason why change is so hard is based on evolution. Our brains are wired to recognise that anything different is potentially dangerous to us. Today, ‘different’ isn’t the rustling in the bushes of a sabre toothed tiger about to attack and, while rarely a matter of life or death, organisational change is more likely to mean uncertainty, rejection, loss of autonomy and the challenge of learning new things. What neuroscience shows us is that our brains react to these social threats as if they threatened our survival.”

Katie O’Brien, an interim communications consultant who works often in frantic change environments explained: “I’ve always tried hard to anticipate how things will land with wider audiences and find ways of plugging change teams into the bigger picture, rather than the immediate tactical scene. Context, I suppose. It is such a relief to see that science can back up what some people see as the internal comms ‘fluffy’ agenda to get people in the know. It turns out to be a basic human need and one that is born out of a fundamental flight or flight instinct: danger ahead, there’s no way I can concentrate on my day-to-day job while all this is going on around me.”

Five reasons why change is so hard – the neuroscience bit

1. Habit versus higher-level thinking. It has been estimated that we run 45% of our lives by habit – the way we drive to work, the way we run a meeting or do anything that we repeat often enough. Anything different requires us to use more of our prefrontal cortex – our higher-level thinking processes. This part of the brain uses up a lot of energy (oxygen and glucose) and tires quickly – it’s a very good reason to tackle the tough work stuff early in the day! The brain prefers things that are easy to process – and we tend to trust things that are easier to process. For example, stocks with easy to pronounce names (Walter as opposed to Zbrffkik) regularly outperform stocks with complex names. Hake’s own research showed that leaders who write in plain language are viewed as significantly more trustworthy and more capable of leading change.

2. The brain’s two objectives. The brain’s has two key objectives, according to the integrative Neuroscientist Evian Gordon: Minimise Threat, Maximise Reward. The brain is constantly scanning for potential danger – and anything different can register as a threat. This is what triggers the ‘fight or flight’ reaction – creating stress in individuals and generally lowering their productivity and ability to use high-level thinking and solve problems through insights. Change sets off an ‘error’ or ‘danger’ signal in the brain, triggering the body’s fear circuitry to ‘fight, flee or freeze’ – rather than business as usual. While a change might represent potential benefits, the brain is more attuned to negatives since paying attention to negatives is more important for survival.

3. Social pain. Organisational change is a major source of psychological threat – changes in status, relationships, certainty and the sense of having control over our lives. From a neuroscience point of view, these are some of the main sources of ‘social pain’, and social pain actually activates the same brain networks as physical pain. The brain reacts to social pain (rejection, loss of status…) as if it threatened your survival because, evolutionarily, losing your place in the tribe was a death sentence. Your higher-level thinking processes recognise that these changes won’t kill you – but your brain can react as though they might – because evolutionarily, they might have.

4. Neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means that everything you think and do changes the structure of your brain. This has led to the saying, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’ To illustrate, it takes London taxi drivers two to four years to memorise 25,000 streets and 20,000 locations in order to be licensed (BBC, 2011). Scanning the taxi drivers’ brains before and after found evidence of greater neuron development in the area of the hippocampus linked to skilled navigation (Maguire et al., 2006). On the other hand, you don’t see this kind of development in the brains of London bus drivers, because they only learn one or two routes. You can change thinking patterns and behaviours that are hard wired through repetition, but it takes a lot of time and effort. That’s why people need to build time and repetition into change management – a one-time event and a single training session won’t change how people think or operate.

5. Cognitive dissonance. People hate to be wrong. It’s threatening to the brain because if you make wrong decisions and have the wrong information in some situations, you could die. Being wrong generates ‘cognitive dissonance’ – the psychological discomfort we feel when our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours are in conflict. Change can feel as though were wrong before – and being wrong feels like a blow to our sense of status. We need to change something to eliminate the discomfort, and it might be easier to change your thinking, as in “This company is too demanding,” rather than changing your behaviour. In organisations, when you change something, whether the structure of the company or the processes you use, the implication is that what you were doing before is wrong.

Change is hard

So how to manage change ?

There is no question that organisational change is a major source of psychological threat with changes in status, relationships, certainty and the sense of having control over our lives. In applying neuroscience to change, Hake suggests four key areas to focus on:

A. Giving people a sense that they have some control or choice

B. Increasing their sense of status and value

C. Using repetition and support over long period of time

D. Increasing certainty: what, when, where, who and why.

In summary the effectiveness of any change programme relies when it comes down to it on the same principles as Marketing. Your communication and actions have to be delivered On message, Over time and in volume.

This post is taken from an article published by Alison Booth on the Simply Communicate Portal. The full article can be found here Science of Change