Today’s workplaces are fraught with change, disruption and often defined by constant transformation. The emerging field of neuroscience is helping us understand that leading and implementing change on the job may have much more to do with our brain’s wiring than good planning and the best of intentions.
We are learning so much from emerging field of neuroscience, though still in its infancy, it’s helping us understand how the brain impacts our work lives and our response to changes in the workplace. Dr David Rock author of the NeuroLeadership Handbook and Your Brain at Work says “We like certainty which brings clarity and predictability. Ambiguity which often comes with change activates a threat circuitry in the brain.” He goes on to say “Not knowing what will happen next can be profoundly debilitating because it requires extra neural energy. This can diminish memory, undermine performance, and disengage people from the present.” So although we are hard wired for change as a species, otherwise we would all be extinct like other species who did not adapt, our brain circuitry does explain why workplace change can be perceived as very threatening. Taking this into account can be helpful to those tasked with leading change.
Many leaders I know instinctively want to reassure in times of change and point to the many things that remain constant during times of transformation. The science seems to bear out that approach though I would caution that in our earnest attempt to stabilize the environment and reassure others to be careful not to create false expectations. I have seen many a well intentioned manager claim prematurely that unpopular or extremely disruptive events are over and never to return only to have to come back in the future with yet more difficult changes putting their credibility at risk. Say what you can in such times, be as transparent as you can but be careful not to overstep and create false expectations knowing that people crave certainty, habit and routine.
Neuroscience helps understand why change is difficult but we also know that people differ greatly in their personality around change. Researchers Christopher Musselwhite and Robyn Ingram helped us understand some time ago that we fall into three camps: conservers who prefer the status quo, pragmatists who will accept change with reasonable time, training and communication and originators who prefer the stimulation that ever changing environments create.
Understanding our tendencies with respect to change and which camp we fall into can help us reframe change and focus on the opportunity it often creates. For leaders, understanding that people fall into those three groups helps understand why acceptance and implementation is often uneven and why resistance manifests itself differently across a team or organisation.
I like author Bob Miglani’s very practical advice on how to move forward in times of change. He is the author of the Washington Post bestseller, Embrace the Chaos. Of his many pieces of advice two resonate for me: “Change is not something that happens to us. Change is something that is happening all the time” and “you are capable of adapting to anything – you just don’t know it yet.”
Wise words to wrap your brain around.