The Neuroscience of Change

Version 3

    Hi readers,


    For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere - I hope you've been enjoying the summer. And for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere - I hope it's not been too cold or miserable. I've been lucky enough to have had a couple of short breaks - inlcuding spending time drinking delicious wine in the Bordeaux region - highly recomended!


    Earlier this week I read a great article on written by Carol Kinsey Goman titled ‘10 Change Management Strategies that are backed by science’


    I wanted to share my thoughts on the article, specifically how these findings relate to the world of Google Apps deployments and the Google Change Management methodology. I have interlaced Carol’s findings with my own thoughts and observations as well as linking to additional related research and articles. I hope this makes for interesting reading.


    Science can explain why people have certain reactions to change AND it gives us tips for how best to help people successfully deal with change.


    Brain science and change


    Many of our daily activities both in and outside of work consist of habitual repetitive tasks. For example brushing our teeth, getting dressed, our commute to work, and using tools such as Outlook, Excel or Powerpoint are all things we have formed habits around. These “habitual repetitive tasks are controlled by a part of the brain called the ‘basal ganglia’ and take minimal mental energy to perform because they are so hard wired we don’t have to give them much conscious thought”. Completing these habitual tasks feels easy and comfortable.


    However “when we are faced with change, it stimulates the prefrontal cortex (the bit of the brain responsible for impulse) and also the amygdala (the bit of the brain that deals with fear and fight or flight responses). When the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed with unfamiliar concepts (for example new technology, tools, UI’s, ways of working) the amygdala is knocked into high gear which results in feelings of anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, fatigue or anger.” Those of us that are involved in helping to drive change in behaviour or the adoption of new ways of working or new tools will have observed these emotions first hand, and likely even experienced them ourselves.


    Having an emotional reaction to change is almost impossible to avoid as it is simply how our brains are wired. But don’t despair! This understanding of how our brains react to change and how new habits are formed enables us to help people deal with change successfully.


    Consider the below tips for how the science of the brain can be used to help people deal with the adoption of Google technology and new collaborative ways of working:


    Communicate regularly to “make the change familiar”

    “The more familiar people are with something - the less threatening it becomes.” When we design the comms plan for a Google Apps roll out we often talk about the ‘rule of 7’ which is an old marketing concept that is very relevant to communicating about change. It states that people need to hear ‘why’ the change is happening at least seven times before they start to fully absorb and accept the messaging. Per our Google Apps change management communications plan we suggest that the initial announcement about the move to Google takes place at least three months in advance of the go-live, so that employees have the time to get used to the idea that change is coming. It also means employees have the opportunity to hear from the project team multiple times in advance of the go-live date so that employees become more familiar with the idea of the change. “When a message is repeated often it will gradually move from being processed by the prefrontal cortex (impulse / fight-flight) to being processed by the basal ganglia (habit / security)”.


    Keep your communications messages simple

    Because “the prefrontal cortex can only deal with a few concepts at a time”, it is important that the elevator pitch and communications messages about why the organisation is moving to Google - are kept simple and straightforward, focusing on the benefits to the organisation and to employees as individuals (for more about this check out my previous post titled ‘Communicating to employees in a compelling and engaging way’). “It can be tempting to share every element of the project with all employees - but you’ll have a significantly more positive reaction to the change if you are able to streamline messaging into a couple of concepts that are easy to absorb.”


    Set realistic expectations about the change

    “Set realistic expectations for people” and explain that switching to Google Apps / working collaboratively is a journey and they may deal with a slowdown in productivity during their early days of using the new tools, but that after this initial adjustment phase they should find working more collaboratively much easier than in the past. If the project team or leaders from the business make out that the change will be 100% smooth and simple, people will find out for themselves that it probably isn’t the case. “When people figure out that something they have been told in the past is unrealistic or untrue, the prefrontal cortex switches to high alert and stars looking for other signs of deception, and triggers feelings of heightened anxiety.”


    Get people involved in the change project

    Research has shown that when someone feels excluded from something it impacts the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex (the bit of the brain that deals with suffering). Meaning that feeling excluded can cause the same reaction that physical pain might cause. Most people respond more favourably to the changes they create themselves rather than those changes that are forced upon them. When people solve a problem by themselves their brain releases a rush of adrenaline giving them a natural high and causing them to feel a positive association with the change.” When dealing with large organisational change, employees often feel powerless and as though they have no control of what is happening.

    There are a couple of great ways to increase employees feelings of involvement in the project. For example consider establishing a Google Guides program where employees provide peer to peer support to each other throughout the project. You could also invite employees to contribute to the design of posters and communications materials. And always make sure that there is a way for employees to share their ideas and feedback on the project so that they feel like they have the chance to help shape the project. Additionally by running Transformation Labs (see here for an article on tips for running transformation labs) you are creating a situation where employees are empowered and encouraged to solve their own business or team challenges, which will bring the benefits of positive feelings towards the change.


    Help people pay attention to the change

    “The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain. The greater the amount of attention (‘attention density’) people pay to the change, the easier they will find it to adapt.” This is yet another reason why it is so important to ensure that you have an engaging communications plan for your Google project, and that communications messages are delivered regularly over a period of time both before and after go-live. Creating a fun or interesting theme or project brand and using a variety of communications channels including messages from executives, posters, emails, newsletters, handouts, Q&A sessions, videos etc will all help increase the level of attention that your employees pay to the project, and will therefore increase their ability to deal with the change.


    Connecting with people on an emotional level is key

    Some of you may have heard me refer to the importance of connecting with people on three levels if you want them to engage with your change project. Those three levels are ‘head’ (rational), ‘heart’ (emotional), and ‘feet’ (behavioural). Typically building an emotional connection between people and the change is the hardest and therefore least often done well, but it is arguably the most important .“According to neurologist and author Antonio Damasio, the prefrontal cortex is so tightly connected to the emotion generating amygdala, that no one makes decisions based on pure logic [head]. He suggests that we make decisions based on emotion [heart], and then use logic [head] to back up and justify our emotional responses.” This highlights the importance of doing a thorough analysis of the user groups within the organisation. Understanding their training needs, use cases and how the move to Google is going to improve their lives in some way (‘what’s in it for them’). It is also important to encourage leaders and those developing and delivering communications messages to connect with employees on an emotional level - not just a rational level. An important reminder for leaders and people managers is that “emotions are infectious”. If a leader is negative or angry, you can be sure that emotion will spread to other parts of the organisation lowering energy and affecting attitudes. Ensure that your project sponsor and people managers are positive, upbeat and optimistic as this will help team members feel energised and positive. This doesn’t mean sugarcoating the truth - simply being enthusiastic, positive minded, leading by example and encouraging people to get on board with the change.


    Remind people about the things that are staying the same / aren’t changing to help give people some stability

    It is important to give people a clear vision for the future by highlighting what the organisation is trying to achieve with the move to Google. As well as being focused on the future, it is also important to respect the past. Many people will have built their careers and personal brand around being the expert with a certain tool or product. If you disrespect the past or previous ways of doing things you will alienate anyone in the business who has spent time working working in that way. It is important to acknowledge that the previous tools or ways of working were what we needed to get the business to this point in time, but for the business to move to it’s next phase change is needed.


    I also recommend that people managers have conversations with their employees not just about what is changing, but also what is staying the same. For example their current job responsibilities are staying the same, the office location is staying the same, the employee will serve the same set of customers or work with the same network of partners. Reminding people of what is NOT changing will help them feel more stable and reduce anxiety, in turn allowing them some space and attention that they can dedicate to the changes.


    Again a massive thanks to Carol Kinsey Goman for writing such an interesting article! I always enjoy learning more about how our brains work, so loved seeing how relevant her observations were to the change management work that many of us are involved with.


    Please don’t hesitate to share any thoughts or comments below.