75% of change initiatives fail because of resistant company culture.
Read that again!
This is largely because humans are emotional, having evolved from ancestors who depended as much on social belonging for survival as they did on food and shelter. Therefore, when change happens, it often threatens our sense of stability, and if our brain perceives change as threatening, it initiates our flight or fight response, meaning that we are likely to avoid or resist the change as much as possible.
Some change leaders are quick to jump over the human aspect of change management and approach it with the viewpoint that “This change is the best thing for everyone, they’ll just have to get used to it”. Rather than encouraging people to embrace change, this instead fosters a culture of anxiety, fear, resistance, and distrust, which is a recipe for failure.
Instead, change leaders need to adopt an approach based in ‘NeuroLeadership’, as it has been coined. This is an approach that prioritises appealing to the hearts and minds of those that the change directly impacts. The following article investigates how neuroscience links to business change, and how change leaders can win over employees to conduct successful business change and transformation projects.
Neuroscience is complex, but we’re going to keep it really simple and image the brain as being made up of two main systems: the Primal system and the Cerebral system.
The Primal system is made up of the limbic and stem parts of the brain, and it takes very little energy to operate as it is responsible for habit, beliefs, emotions, and keeping us alive. It manages all the things that are out of our control. Anything that’s just routine, such as walking, showering, or brushing our teeth, are all ran by our Primal system.
The Cerebral system is made up of the prefrontal cortex and is where cognitive abilities happen, including critical thinking and analytics. We only use this part of the brain a small percentage of the time, and if we overuse it, we suffer from mental exhaustion and headaches.
When change is introduced, the existing habits and knowledge we have in our primal system is challenges and becomes obsolete. As we have to learn new knowledge and build new habits, we start to use more of our Cerebral system. When we start using more of our Cerebral system than our Primal system, we experience “psychological pain”.
However, as we continue using our Cerebral system to learn new behaviours, we eventually reach a biological breakthrough, known as psychological change adoption, which is when we start to understand things and become increasingly confident. As this happens, we start using less of our Cerebral system and start using more of our Primal systems as we form new habits and memories.
Once our Primal system is fully managing these habits and behaviours again, we reach psychological comfort as the brain’s ‘normal’ is restored.
Employees deny that there is a need for change and actively try to prove and explain why the proposed solution won’t work.
Change leaders should approach people in this stage with excessive and effective communication. It’s important to story-tell at this stage, paint a vision for the future, and maintain an open dialogue with everybody within the business. Be willing to listen to concerns and answer any questions. It’s your job to sell the solution.
Employees will start to really complain here, pick holes in the solution, and blame others for failures and mistakes.
Change leaders should approach people in this stage with empathy. They should provide a psychologically safe space to vent and air their frustrations. Whilst not all their feedback needs actioning, it’s still all important to help maintain that open dialogue and make sure that employees feel that their voices are still being heard and considered by being a part of the conversation.
Employees try to navigate the change and find alternative solutions to the one proposed.
Change leaders should enable and empower employees to be a part of the project, listen to their ideas, and allow time to offer constructive feedback on their ideas and explain why you have chosen the route you have.
Employees accept that change is necessary and start to engage and embrace the solution.
Change leaders should reward those embracing the chance, find champions within the business, and showcase business successes to maintain enthusiasm for the project.
Psychological pain is the unpleasant mental experience caused by change to the brain’s functional status quo, introduction to something previously unknown, or threats to self-perception.
Psychological change adoption is when new habits and thought patterns start becoming learned and automatic making you feel increasingly confident in the new status quo and new responsibilities.
Psychological comfort is the new relaxed mental state where the brain’s functional status quo is restored, new habits and beliefs are formed, and positive self-perception is regained.
By carefully navigating the four steps of change resistance, and by winning over the hearts and minds of employees, business change leaders are more likely to deliver a successful organisational change that is sustainable.
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