One thing is certain: change is here to stay. As authors Joi Ito and Jeff Howe note in Whiplash, “Change outpaced humans sometime late in the last century. These are exponential times.” Many teams and leaders think of change as something that happens at an organizational level. However, for organizations to achieve meaningful change in a sustainable way, they need to create the conditions that enable behavior change for the individuals that make up the organization.
If you want new results, you need to try new things. And if you want the kind of change agility required to thrive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous business landscape, you need teams made up of individuals who are open to embracing behavior change by trying new tactics.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “everything about my workplace—our processes, relationships, growth metrics, and market share—is perfect. We don’t need change,” I congratulate you. I also think you need to keep reading, as the rate and scope of change is exponential—even if everything is perfect right now, there could be a slick new startup getting ready to eat into your market share, a massive regulatory shift on the horizon, or a star performer on your team who does not think things are perfect, and is getting ready to give their notice. Whether you felt it yesterday, are wrapped up in it today, or will be swept away tomorrow, the tides of change are coming for us all.
These shifts mean that organizations need to be comfortable with change, which necessitates embracing behavior change at an individual level. A top down “change initiative” won’t get any traction if the individuals who inhabit and create the organization aren’t able to shift their behavior to keep up.
However, organizations are typically bad at behavior change because they try to work against the brains of the individuals in their organizations. Neuroscience reveals a great deal about the way our brains have evolved to survive and thrive in the world. Often, the way that organizations attempt to initiate change run counter to what the science tells us. The field of neuroscience is vast, with implications for many areas of our lives, and what follows is just a brief overview of what some of that research can tell us about managing behavior change at work, and some actionable tips to help organizations harness the learnings from neuroscience to shift individual behavior and get better results.
Start With What You Can Change Today
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “we’ll tackle changes when things settle down.” “Sure, the team dynamic is a bit tense right now, but we’ll address it when this next big project is finished.” “What we’re doing is working for now, we’ll talk about change if it stops working.” The problem with this thinking is that things will never settle down, tension on the team is impacting the quality of the project they are working on today, and by the time your current process stops working it could be too late to figure out a new solution.
As Marshall Goldsmith argues in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, “There is a good chance that tomorrow is going to be just as crazy as today. If you want to change anything about yourself, the best time to start is now. Ask yourself, ‘What am I willing to change now?’ Just do that. That’s more than enough.”
The same is true for organizations and teams. To respond to changes—in the market, in technology, within the team itself, and beyond—we need to embrace incremental change, improving a little bit everyday, if we want to have a chance to keep up.
- Stop thinking about change as something that can be planned, regimented, carefully documented, and completed. Change is the only constant that we can count on in today’s business landscape, so if you are waiting until your team is “ready” for change, you’ll be waiting a long time. Think about all those failed New Year’s resolutions—when you try to change too many things at once, you set yourself up for failure.
- Embrace iterative modes of working and behavior change. Start with what you can improve today, and build from there. Celebrate success, debrief on what doesn’t work, and try to do a bit better tomorrow.
Minimize Social Threats On Your Team
Our brains are wired exceptionally well for a reality that no longer exists. We have evolved to minimize threats, and maximize rewards. These instincts served the species well when our needs were primarily linked to survival (and indeed, continue to serve us well when we encounter physical threats). However, in most of the developed world, and within organizations, our needs are primarily social. We seek approval, praise, community, and acceptance from our social networks—yet we process social threats in much the same way that we process physical threats.
Naomi Eisenberger studied the effects of social rejection in the brain. Her findings showed that the experience of social rejection resulted in increased activity in “the neural region involved in the distressing component of pain, or what is sometimes referred to as the ‘suffering’ component of pain… In other words, the feeling of being excluded provoked the same sort of reaction in the brain that physical pain might cause.”
This link between physical and social comfort has likely evolved, according to Matthew Leiberman, “because, to a mammal, being socially connected to caregivers is necessary for survival.” Our brains are social organs that spend a lot of time engaged in processing the implications of social interactions.
While it’s common to think of employment as a purely economic transaction—trading labor for compensation—that mindset neglects the social reality of the workplace. We all have to interact with people everyday—to get approval for the project, to collaborate on a new initiative, to share space, give and receive updates, the list goes on. When an individual feels socially threatened—an idea shot down, a slightly aggressive line of questioning, or the perception that the close knit clique that’s developed is excluding them—it activates a response that is similar to a physical threat.
- Have a zero tolerance policy for incivility in the workplace. Prioritize the basics, like saying please and thank you, acknowledging work well-done, and encouraging personal interaction between team members. Ensure that your company values are enacted each and every day to set a positive tone for your culture.
- Ensure that your processes are inclusive of all members of the team. One tactic that we use for this at Actionable is to schedule “thrashing sessions” at the beginning of each new project. These meetings are open to everyone on the team (regardless of whether or not the project involves their “department”), as an opportunity to provide feedback, ask questions, and offer ideas. These sessions ensure that the entire team feels included in the decision making process. They also safeguard against people feeling left out or excluded from a project they are interested in, minimizing the perception of social threats.
The Threat Response Shuts Down Analytic Thinking
The threat response, whether activated due to a physical or social threat, is processed by a “part of the limbic brain called the amygdala. This part is hardwired along with the well-developed instincts of fight, flight, freeze or appease, locating in the primitive brain, that have evolved over millions of years. When we feel threatened, the amygdala activates the immediate impulses that ensure we survive. Our brains lock down and we are no longer open to influence” (Conversational Intelligence, 7-8). When we are experiencing a threat response, our brains simply aren’t capable of the same level of cognitive analysis, problem-solving, or collaboration that is often desired when you are trying to encourage behavior change.
David Rock created the SCARF model to map the five domains of social experience. The threat response is initiated when we experience challenges to any of these domains: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.
Let’s take the standard annual performance review process as an example. The very premise of an annual meeting with a leader or manager (often a superior on the org chart) to discuss performance—which would typically include both positive and negative feedback—will inevitably invoke a threat response.
In a performance review, an employee might feel a threat to their status (their position within the company and/or salary), certainty (changes to their work activities/priorities), autonomy (maybe it’s time to increase collaboration, or invite others into a project they’ve been working on alone), relatedness (mentally comparing their evaluation to what others have experienced), and to fairness (negative feedback on a project they worked very hard on may come across as unfair). As the brain processes these threats, the amygdala is activated, and the rest of the brain locks down to focus on survival.
As Rock argues: “The threat response is both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person—or of an organization. Because this response uses up oxygen and glucose from the blood, they are diverted from other parts of the brain, including the working memory function, which processes new information and ideas. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving; in other words, just when people most need their sophisticated mental capabilities, the brain’s internal resources are taken away from them.”
- Don’t skip your regular one on one conversations. If you are meeting regularly with each member of your team to discuss how things are going, they won’t automatically assume the worst when you call them into a meeting. Focus on building trusting relationships through these regular conversations, and giving feedback in smaller doses in order to minimize the threat response, and maximize the kind of analytical thinking, insight, and problem solving required to tackle complex challenges.
- Ensure that performance management conversations include encouragement—acknowledge what’s going well, offer guidance on what could be improved, and conclude with praise for any successful efforts. If it’s time to have a tough conversation about performance, be clear and constructive, and ensure that the team member has an opportunity to process the information and come back with questions when they’ve had time to think through the feedback and allow the threat response to subside.
Recognize the Power of Routine
Another barrier to behavior change that can be explained by neuroscience is our comfort with routine, and the perception of discomfort when doing or thinking something new. When an action or process has become a habit, it invokes the basal ganglia, which David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz explain is the “part of the brain, located near the core, where neural circuits of long-standing habit are formed and held. It requires much less energy to function than working memory does, in part because it seamlessly links simple behaviors from brain modules that have already been shaped by extensive training and experience.”
When we introduce a change to a routine, the brain’s working memory, sometimes referred to as the “brains holding area,” gets to work comparing new information to other existing experiences and connections.
“The basal ganglia can function exceedingly well without conscious thought in any routine activity. In contrast, working memory fatigues easily and can hold only a limited amount of information “on line” at any one time. Therefore, any activity conducted repetitively (to the point of becoming a habit) will tend to get pushed down into the basal ganglia, the habit-center part of the brain. This frees up the processing resources of the prefrontal cortex.” – Rock and Schwartz
Simply put, routines are easy, low-function, and require little energy. Once a routine is established, the brain doesn’t have to work hard to continue the routine. In contrast, taking in new information, and making changes to an existing process, or creating a new routine, is a much more energy-intensive endeavor.
Think about the routines in place in your organization. The weekly cadence and format of meetings, the preferred mode of communication, even the layout of the space and location of the coffee maker, are routines: no one has to really think about them. Make a major change to any of these examples—switch up the agenda/frequency of meetings, ask your team to move from emails to Slack, or put the coffee maker in a different location—and for a few weeks, you are bound to see some confusion. A staff member thoughtlessly wandering into a meeting at the wrong time, or defaulting to email instead of Slack, will likely be common. Over time, as these new processes become habitual, they will return to being processed in the basal ganglia, and a routine has been formed.
- Don’t overload people with changes. If you are in the middle of changing one element of your workflow or processes, avoid introducing additional changes. Keep your regular meeting frequency, stick to your schedule of one on ones, and put off the office redesign. Work on changing one routine or behavior at a time, to avoid overloading your team’s ability to process the change.
- When a change is made in your team or organization, plan to support the change through reinforcing conversations, and gentle corrections. Give people time to adjust to a new routine and offer praise and support to those who make changes efficiently, and gently remind people when they slip back into their old ways.
Minimize Error Signals to Get Better Results
The way we process routines, as well as new information, is also heavily impacted by what “neuroscientists call ‘errors’: perceived differences between expectation and actuality. When a child (or an adult, for that matter) is promised a sweet-tasting treat and then discovers it tastes salty or bitter, the brain emits strong signals that use a lot of energy, showing up in imaging technology as dramatic bursts of light.”
“These error signals are generated by a part of the brain called the orbital frontal cortex. Located above the eyeballs, it is closely connected to the brain’s fear circuitry, which resides in a structure called the amygdala. The amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex are among the oldest parts of the mammal brain, remnants of evolutionary history. When these parts of the brain are activated, they draw metabolic energy away from the prefrontal region, which promotes and supports higher intellectual functions. The prefrontal region is particularly well developed in humans, and doesn’t exist at all below the higher primates. Error detection signals can thus push people to become emotional and to act more impulsively: Animal instincts take over.” – Rock and Schwartz
Changes to routine are uncomfortable because they force us to engage in increased neurological activity, and if new information that defies our expectations is presented, the brain receives an “error” that activates the amygdala, thus pushing people into emotional responses.
- Actively manage expectations of your team—especially during times of change. Simple acts like sending out meeting agendas ahead of time, and setting and meeting realistic timelines will help your team to manage expectations and minimize their perception of error signals.
- At times when unexpected changes arise (as they inevitably will), acknowledge the change, let your team know that that it isn’t ideal, and allow as much time as possible for them to process the discrepancy.
Prioritize Conversations that Develop Trust
When we trust people to have our best interests in mind, it activates the part of the brain capable of making new connections and engaging in complex analysis. Distrust activates the limbic part of the brain, initiating a response in which the individual is only capable of processing an immediate threat.
As Judith Glaser argues, “when we are in a fear state, our conversations are shaped by the neurochemistry of fear. We can only think about protecting ourselves. The best antidotes to the brain’s fear state are trust, empathy, and support. When someone shows concern for us, our brain chemistry makes a shift. We become calmer, we regain our composure, and we can begin once again to think in a constructive way.” (Conversational Intelligence, 35).
If you want your team to change their behavior, respond positively to feedback, and create new routines, demonstrating concern and care for them will go a long way towards establishing the kind of trust that is required for them to function at a high level.
- Show trust to foster trusting relationships. Do you trust that each individual on your team will do what they say they will, or do you micromanage performance? Giving people the power and support to manage their own schedules and priorities shows that you trust them.
- Back your team up when they need it, to show you support them. When a project fails, do you take accountability as a manager and team? Or do you place the blame squarely on the shoulders of a particular individual? Show your team that you have their back when they are facing challenges (and debrief in private later if you need to), and they will have your back in turn.
To succeed in today’s VUCA landscape, organizations need to be comfortable with change, which means that they need to support the individuals on their teams and create the conditions that make behavior change possible. Unfortunately, a lot of organizations try to approach behavior change using tactics that are contrary to what the research shows us about how our brains interpret change requests. Initiatives that trigger a threat response, disrupt well established routines or expectations without any built in support, or demonstrate a lack of trust in your team, can send individuals into a fight or flight response—and in those moments, their brains are incapable of the high level functions needed for successful behavior change.
The prefrontal cortex is “the newest brain, and it enables us to build societies, have good judgement, be strategic, handle difficult conversations, and build and sustain trust. Yet when the amygdala picks up a threat, our conversations are subject to the lockdown, and we get more “stuck” in our point of view!” (Conversational Intelligence, 8).
Simply put, to manage the complexities of behavior change effectively, you need team members who are actively using the part of their brain that makes connections—not the animal brain, which is exclusively focused on survival.
My colleague Jane Watson recently wrote about the difficult work of culture change in organizations. As she argues: “Even the most energetic culture change programs cannot succeed if they are solely top-down, because trying to control what people believe is nearly impossible. Culture change programs that seek to do this lead employees to feel that the organization sees them as objects needing to be “fixed.” Resistance naturally follows, as does cynicism about future ‘culture change’ initiatives. Mandating behavior changes from the top might appear to work for a time, particularly if organizations also align incentives and penalties. But when you push a system, it pushes back, even if it’s not immediately visible.”
Organizations that think about behavior change as something that sweeps from the top all the way through the organization will find themselves struggling to get the kind of individual buy-in and action that is required to create and sustain change.
Individuals are complicated, messy, diverse, and difficult to align to centralized objectives. They are also often the greatest asset that organizations have to help achieve the kind of agility in change that is essential for thriving in a VUCA landscape.
By harnessing the wisdom of neuroscience, organizations can begin to create the conditions that individuals need to be comfortable in times of change, and ultimately get the best results.