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The Neuropsychology of Sustainable Change

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Research carried out by McKinsey and Company (Aiken & Keller, 2009) and Dr. John Kotter (2007) indicate that 70% of all change initiatives in companies backslide. “Failing to engage hearts and minds” was reported as the main issue by 57 % of the respondents in a survey done by the Economist Intelligence Unit (Kielstra, 2011). The reasons why this might be so can be explored from a neuropsychological perspective.

The overarching organizing principle of the human brain is to minimize danger and maximize reward (Gordon, 2000). When we move into a state of threat vs. reward we become less creative, our cognitive resources are less accessible and our ability to collaborate and share ideas with each other is severely impaired.

Wide-scale organizational change can create a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, messages the brain interprets as a threat. Creating a 'toward' state that helps people to feel safe enough to think about the future is an essential first step in managing change successfully.

David Rock (2008) identified five social domains that – if not managed well during change - can result in an overwhelming threat response from employees and a strong resistance to change. These are a loss of status, high degree of uncertainty about the future, reduced autonomy, erosion of trust, and heightened perception of unfairness about decisions related to the change initiative. Change efforts should be designed in ways that reduce the threats and make employees feel safe enough to have conversations about the future.

A key aspect of facilitating change is to support employees to generate their own insights about how to move forward instead of telling them what to do. Insights are rewarding for the brain because it causes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that facilitates novel connections and is involved in learning new behaviors (Sharot 2012). Having insights causes a greater sense of ownership and increased motivation to put ideas into action. We tend to like something much more when we have made an active choice to select the option ourselves.

For organizational change to be sustainable not only new ways of working are required but also new behaviors and mindsets. Giving feedback to others in order to encourage a change in behavior often results in a strong threat response (Dixon, Rock & Ochsner, 2010). Self-directed, feed-forward on the other hand - where the employee is invited to give feedback to him or herself on how to solve a performance issue - provides the opportunity to find the solutions themselves. This raises an employee´s status, and, as with insights, leads to a greater sense of ownership and an increased chance that the new behavior will be implemented.

Sometimes the best way to boost performance is to enable people to do something that they know really well first. Once people have done one task well, confidence will be boosted and they will be in a better place to take on the next challenge (Scarlett, 2016). Another way to reinforce new behaviors is to follow up in the form of acknowledgement. It takes time for neural wiring to be strong enough so that the behavior comes naturally to the person. This not only primes the brain for actions we want to see more of, but it also puts us in a reward state which will enable us to perform better on the next task (Sharot, 2012).

At Lead4Agility we include neuroscience and behavioral change principles in all our interventions. Leaders gain an increased understanding and capacity to manage their own reactions to change and learn how to promote important conversations about organizational changes within their teams, which in turn enables them to maximize collaboration and maintain a positive focus.


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