Ten Changes - Management Strategies That Are Backed By Science
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I've been studying change leadership for over 25 years, but
only recently have researchers been able to use technology like
functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) to look at the brain and
see what actually happens when we're facing a major organizational
For example: Most of our daily activities including many of
our work habits are controlled by a part of the brain called the basal
ganglia. These habitual repetitive tasks take much less mental energy
to perform because they become hard wired and we no longer have to give
them much conscious thought. So it's no wonder that the way we've
always done it not only feels right, it feels good.
Change jerks us out of this comfort zone by stimulating the
prefrontal cortex, a section of the brain responsible for insight and
impulse control. But the prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to
the amygdala and that's the brain's fear circuitry, which in turn
controls our freeze, fight or flight response. And when the prefrontal
cortex is overwhelmed with complex and unfamiliar concepts, the
amygdala connection gets knocked into high gear. The result is all
those negative feelings of anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, fatigue
or anger that change leaders observe in their teams (and often in
But if science helps explain our negative reaction to change,
it also offers insights for helping people deal with change:
1. First of all, make the change familiar.
If you show people two pictures of themselves, one an accurate
representation and the other a reverse image, people will prefer the
second because that's the image they see in the mirror everyday. It
takes a lot of repetition to move a new or complex concept from the
prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia. Continually talking about
change, focusing on key aspects will eventually allow the novel to
become more familiar and less threatening.
2. Let people create change. No
one likes change that's forced on them; and yet, most people respond
favorably to change they create and brain research shows why this is
so. At the moment when someone chooses to change, their brain scan
shows a tremendous amount of activity as insight develops, and the
brain begins building new and complex connections. When people solve a
problem by themselves, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters
like adrenaline and this natural high becomes associated positively
with the change experience.
3. Simplify your communication.
The prefrontal cortex can only deal well with a few concepts at a time.
As tempting as it may be to lump everything you know about the change
into one comprehensive chunk, don't do it. Your job is to help people
make sense of complexity by condensing it into two or three critical
goals that they can understand and absorb.
4. Don't sugarcoat the truth. The
prefrontal cortex is always on guard for signals of danger. When overly
optimistic outcomes or unrealistic expectations are exposed (and by the
way, they always are) the prefrontal cortex switches to high alert
looking for other signs of deception and triggering the primitive brain
to respond with feelings of heightened anxiety.
5. Help people pay attention. The
act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the
brain. In fact, attention is what is continually reshaping brain
patterns. The term attention density refers to the amount of attention
paid to a particular mental experience over a specific time. The
greater concentration on a specific idea, the higher the attention
density. High attention density facilitates long-term behavioral
change. Now, one way to encourage people to pay attention is to package
new ideas in continually different ways, attention grabbing ways. A
story, a game, an experience, a humorous skit, a metaphor, an image or
even a song.
6. Don't underestimate the power of emotion.
According to the neurologist and author Antonio Damasio, the center of
our conscious thought (the prefrontal cortex) is so tightly connected
to the emotion-generating amygdala, that no one
makes decisions based on pure logic. Damasio’s research makes it clear
that mental processes we’re not conscious of drive our decision making,
and logical reasoning is really no more than a way to justify emotional
choices. When leaders announce change, therefore, they need to go
beyond logic and facts and include an appeal to the audience's emotions.
7. In addition, remember that emotions are
infectious. Like the common cold, emotions are literally
contagious. You can "catch" an emotion just by being in the same room
with someone. And since emotional leads tend to flow from the most
powerful person in a group to the others, when the leader is angry or
depressed, negativity can spread like a virus to the rest of the team,
affecting attitudes and lowering energy. Conversely, upbeat and
optimistic leaders are likely to make the entire team feel energized.
8. Watch your body language. When
your body language doesn’t match your words, your verbal message is
lost. Neuroscientists at Colgate University study the effects of
gestures by using an electroencephalograph (EEG) machines to measure
“event related potentials” – brain waves that form peaks and valleys.
One of these valleys, dubbed N400, occurs when subjects are shown
gestures that contradict what’s spoken. This is the same brain wave dip
that occurs when people listen to nonsensical language. So if you state
that you are open to suggestions about implementing change, but as you
talk about "openness," you cross your arms in a "closed" gesture -- you
literally don’t make sense. And if forced to choose, people will
believe what they see and not what you say.
9. Give people a stabilizing foundation.
In a constantly changing organization, where instability must be
embraced as inevitable, a sense of stability can still be maintained.
The leader's role here is to create stability through honoring the
organization's history, detailing current successes and challenges, and
creating a powerful vision for the future. And, by using the term
"vision," I'm not referring to a corporate statement punctuated by
bullet points. I'm talking about a clearly articulated, emotionally
charged, and encompassing picture of what the organization is trying to
10. Optimize the power of inclusive
relationships. Using (fMRI) equipment, researchers
found that when someone feels excluded there is corresponding activity
in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex — the neural
region involved in the “suffering” component of pain. In other words,
the feeling of being excluded provokes the same sort of reaction in the
brain that physical pain might cause. The new change-leadership
fundamentals emphasize inclusive and collaborative relationships.
Social networks - those ties among individuals that are based on mutual
trust, shared work experiences, and personal connections are the
foundation for organizational success. Anything you as a leader can do
to nurture these mutually rewarding relationships will also enhance the
change readiness within your team and throughout your organization.
About the Author
Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is an international keynote
speaker, leadership presence coach and author of "The Silent Language
of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.” Authors Google+
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