This is Your Brain on Change. Any Questions?

Jul 16, 2015 No Comments by

Have you ever wondered what goes on deep inside our brains as we face change?full-brain

Are we pre-wired to embrace change or resist it?

What can neuroscience tell us about the physical & chemical brain activity that takes place during the change adoption process?

Today’s article introduces the first of a pair of expert opinions on how the human brain responds when confronted with the challenge of adapting to new things.

As Change Agents, it’s often easier to assume that the primary reaction to change would be a psychological phenomenon, but it turns out that recent research has uncovered clearly identifiable physical patterns of response that occur within the human brain as it attempts to understand and cope with change.

Today’s first article is about a formal university study that yielded an obvious, yet useful finding. Tomorrow’s second article contains a list of specific advice given by a psychologist on how Change Agents can leverage our understanding of the human brain to plan our activities.

060313 tbr Banner eggs fryingLet’s get started…

I Could Have Told You That!  A team at Michigan State University did a study last year to better understand how the brain reacts to change. They placed sensors on the heads of their test subjects and gave them simple, yet distinct rule changes to learn.

The not-so-surprising results showed that learning to adapt to change is not just difficult psychologically – it’s difficult physiologically. Their article called “When Rules Change, Brain Falters” is an interesting read if you’ve ever wondered what goes on deep inside the heads of our stakeholders as they prepare to adopt or reject our changes.

brain_activityThe full study, which focused on how the brain responds to mistakes that occur as we adapt to rule changes, was published in the research journal Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience. Click here to read a PDF version of the formal paper detailing the study titled “When Rules are Reversed”.

One of the authors summed up their results by saying:

“These findings and our past research suggest that when you have multiple things to juggle in your mind – essentially, when you are multitasking – you are more likely to mess up”.

Change Agent Take-Aways: While this study did not yield a huge surprise, it does reinforce the following short list of Change Agent recommendations that may sound familiar to regular readers of theBigRocks. When guiding change, it’s important to:Keep Calm and Follow the Rules

1.  Define the Rules and the Wiggle Room: The study tells us that people tend to mess up when multi-tasking, so be clear with your stakeholders about what the change will mean for them and what it doesn’t mean.

One source of multi-tasking confusion may be that people hear all about the new things they are expected to do – but don’t know what things to stop doing! Spell out which new behaviors are required and which are either optional or no longer expected.

2.  Reduce Complexity: Think through the details of your change – especially from the frame of reference of your stakeholders. The clearer your rationale and expectations are communicated, the less likely you’ll generate resistance based on confusion.

red-help-button3.  Be Methodical and Be Available: Find all the people who are impacted by your change and cover your bases as you roll it out so no one will feel left behind. In smaller organizations, you can probably interact with each individual.

In larger ones, you may need to break out the impacts by role and use a cascading Champion model to make sure everyone gets the message and has a place to take their questions.

Summary: Recent research has given us new insights into how human brains deal with change. But even if we think we know what our stakeholders are thinking, that knowledge will only matter if we as Change Agents follow up with tangible actions to help through the process.  My next post will address more specific actions we can take based on the neurological insights of a psychologist who mapped how change effects different areas of the brain. 


Questions for Chatter:

  1. Sometimes a little bit of detailed knowledge about the human brain can be a good thing for Change Agents… But is it possible to over-think how we help stakeholders?
  2. How closely do the Michigan State study’s results align with your experience as a Change Agent?


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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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