The Neuroscience Of Change
Why We Hate It So Much
Everyone knows that change is hard, even change that we said we want. Change we didn’t ask for is even harder and we instinctively oppose it. Neuroscience can explain a lot about how we respond to change and why it is so hard.
Many of our behaviors are essentially unconscious1. Our habits tend to follow a basic pattern: trigger, behavior, results.2 Neural pathways are formed by these repeated behaviors and the expected results are so automatic that we engage in the actions without even thinking about it.3 Our brains are big fans of repeated actions4 so, to disrupt habits, you have to create new pathways that provide the brain with more frequent or higher quality neurological rewards.
There are reasons why our brains don’t like change. Humans are hardwired to seek stability and predictability; it’s been good for survival. So when our social environments shift or our patterns are disrupted, our brains become alarmed.5 Because the workplace is frequently a place of regular routine, change at work can be particularly destabilizing for an individual.
Individual is the operative word here. Supervisors and managers need to understand that regardless of the size of your workforce, it is still made up of individual human beings. Each one of whom is going to insist on acting like a person.
Effective Change Management
Simply put, change management is the process of describing and enabling change in the workplace in a way that takes into account the human side of things. The framework of change management should take advantage of commonalities in the way that people intuitively process and respond to change. There are methodologies that take into consideration peoples’ natural resistance and essentially help retrain their brains to help ease the transition from one system to another.
Competent change management is mission critical to introducing new processes, procedures or organizational structure to a business. Understanding the science of change management and habit building can help employers roll out institutional changes in a way that eases the process and builds trust and compliance rather than alienation and anxiety among employees.
We know that large scale, institutional change is usually painful and frequently unsuccessful. This is often a result of change management that didn’t take human behavior into consideration. Common mistakes include introducing radical change without giving people time to process, setting unrealistic expectations for adoption and compliance, failing to communicate with managers and supervisors to facilitate information cascading frequently and accurately down through the organization.
What does work is leaning into human nature and using what we know about how people think and feel to successfully implement change. Two-way communication, especially around the advantages of the changes being made, is essential for establishing rational acceptance of a new concept. But probably the most important aspect of successful change management is to help employees build new neural pathways that reinforce the desired behaviors. That is done through incremental change, repetition, reward, repeat.
While organizational change can be a challenge for any company, using a change management approach grounded in an understanding of neuroscience and habit building can be immensely useful in helping get everyone on board. Habits are formed slowly over time, and that’s why it is necessary to build in transition time and aid your employees in developing the new habits needed to build a better future for them and the company.