Brain Benders for Change Agents

Jun 09, 2013 No Comments by

BrainRecent research has uncovered new levels of understanding about how the human brain deals with change.

In my last article, I outlined some key findings of a Michigan State University study that identified patterns within the brain activity of people who were subjected to rule changes.

I also offered three “Change Agent Take-Aways” based on this knowledge of how humans face change.

When guiding change, we should:

1.  Define the Rules and the Wiggle Room: Communicate new things stakeholders are expected to do – but also share those things you expect them to stop doing.

2.  Reduce Complexity: Make sure your instructions and your rationale are clearly communicated.

3.  Be Methodical and Be Available: Find who will be impacted by your change. Ensure they all get the message and have a place to take their questions.

theBigRocks Yellow Bar

Fry an egg. CroppedjpgAvoid Frying Your Brain On Change: If we can assume that the brain will go through predictable response patterns in reaction to change, then what can be done about it?

Leadership Consultant Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman suggests that Change Agents can leverage this awareness of how the brain functions by following six simple rules – each based on neuro-scientific realities:

1.  Make change familiar.  She reasons that It takes a lot of repetition to move a new or complex concept from the prefrontal cortex to the basil ganglia.”
2.  Let people create change.  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.  KISS your communication. “The prefrontal cortex can deal well with only a few concepts at one time.”Crystal Ball Into the Future

4.  Never underestimate the power of a vision.“<Create>…a clearly articulated, emotionally charged, and broad picture of what the organization is trying to achieve.”
5.  Don’t sugar-coat the truth. The prefrontal cortex is always on guard for signals of danger.

6.  Help people pay attention.  “The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain.

Here’s a link to her entire article and her business website which are both excellent.

theBigRocks Yellow Bar

Six More Change Agent Take-Aways: I agree with Dr. Goman’s six steps and have a few observations to add.

1.    Familiarity Doesn’t Just Happen: I’ve found it very effective to use a “positive repetition” approach when it comes to introducing change. First, I help my clients define the basics of the change:

a.     What’s changing and what’s not changing.

b.     Why we’re doing this.

c.      Who’s impacted and who’s involved in helping everyone get through the change.

d.     When it’s going to happen.

e.      What each impacted person can do to get ready.

f.      Where to go with questions.

repeatThen instead of assuming this stuff will all make sense based on one leadership pronouncement, we plan to repeat the positive messages multiple times using multiple messengers and multiple channels. We also plan to gather feedback on what parts are making sense and what parts need more follow-up.  As the key points become more familiar, the questions tend to diminish.

2. Engage Stakeholders in Creating and Rolling Out the Change: People generally react more favorably to a given change when they have an active role in shaping it. I like to help my clients identify potential “Change Champions” within their organization. We work together with these early adopters as they assist the team in “sanity checking” the premise for the change, tweaking the approach to rolling it out and identifying areas where they feel we may face resistance.  By participating in the formulation of the change, these Change Agents are better prepared to help others through the process of change acceptance.Not That Kind of Kiss

3. Keep Communication Simple: As Dr. Goman suggests, use the K.I.S.S. principle. Others have their own definition of this acronym, but I interpret it as “Keep It Short & Simple”.  Boil down complex concepts into bite-sized, relevant pieces and guide people through the information.  It’s especially important to coordinate the main points of your change-related communication with sponsors, managers and Change Agents so there is limited chance of sending mixed messages. I often help my clients develop simple bullet points that they can interpret (within reason) as they personally deliver the message to their stakeholders.

4. Create a Clear Vision: Take the time to build a very clear picture of where the organization is going and how this change fits into that future. Be sure that the vision you paint also demonstrates roughly how the team will get from the current state to the positive future so people can start mapping out their journey. People react poorly to a new change if past change efforts have failed. The negative connotation of “yet another doomed change” is hard to overcome, so don’t assume your vision will be greeted with open arms.

one-way-one-way5. Be Honest: Just as important as painting a clear and compelling picture of the future is making sure that the picture is realistic. Assume people in your organization are smart enough to remember the failures of the past and don’t want to see them repeated. In fact, I have found that risk aversion based on experience is one well-intentioned source of resistance that’s often overlooked. Be frank about the things you’ve tried unsuccessfully in the past and describe how this change will be different. Be equally honest about any significant caveats or limits on the expected benefits of the change so stakeholders can realistically look forward to sharing in the success.

6. Help People Pay Attention: Dr. Goman’s final point is not hard to address if you take a methodical approach to guiding the change. That involves planning the work of the change – then following through on the plan. Map out the activities that contribute to building stakeholder awareness, understanding and adoption of your change.

I use a straight-forward methodology that has five “big rocks”:theBigRocks-of-change-graphic

Lead: Create a change leadership team that verifies strategic alignment of the change and demonstrates sponsorship for the change across the organization.

Communicate: Get the word out about the rationale for the change, how it will impact different stakeholders and how people can prepare to adapt.

Enable: Offer targeted learning opportunities, messaging and support for people as they learn about the change and prepare to do things in a new way.

Deliver: Use structured project management methods to plan and track the execution of Organizational Change Management (OCM) activities. If the change is being driven by a larger project, make sure the OCM work gets accounted for within those project plans and execution.

Teamwork: Ensure that the team working to roll out the change is firing on all cylinders by using effective methods to make decisions, resolve issues and generally get their work done.


A Final Word: Scientists are learning more about the inner workings of the human brain as it goes through the change process. We can leverage our knowledge of these reaction patterns to help guide change adoption.

Helping people through the process can be hard, but following a crisp, structured approach will help impacted individuals build the temporary neural links that eventually lead to permanent positive pathways within their grey matter regarding your change.


Questions for Chatter

  1. Based on the research noted above, do you think it will someday be possible to significantly speed up the process of change adoption by tweaking areas of the brain?
  2. Do you think some people are “hard wired” within their brains to be excellent change adopters?


Purple Line


Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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