The neuroscience of handling change: key takeaways from our event with ACC Europe

The legal function has traditionally had a (somewhat unjustified) reputation for resistance to change. So why would legal professionals take an interest in change management?

Well, like every function, legal departments are benefiting from transformational change brought about by technology. Apperio is just one example of digital disrupting ingrained practice.

But whilst change itself is no bad thing; indeed it is essential for corporate competitiveness; the way change is delivered and deployed is often below par. Technologists have a habit of getting caught up in their utopian vision, believing that tech firms have all the answers while forgetting that users of technologies come in all shapes and sizes and may need a little help to adapt to ‘the new normal’.

Similarly, businesses themselves have a habit of under-resourcing change management programmes. That’s why they roll out new systems across a weekend, yet are surprised that employees don’t turn up on Monday morning excited and ready to go.

All is not lost. Here at Apperio, we  believe software and change management must go hand in hand for success. At a recent joint event with ACC Europe, we welcomed Hilary Scarlett, author of “Neuroscience for Organizational Change” and an organisational change specialist focusing on the people aspects of change management. She gave our audience of legal professionals a deep insight into how our minds are, in fact, in some ways, extraordinarily predictable in their response to change – and how with a little understanding of neuroscience, every corporate environment can smooth out some of the complexities of change and create better results from technological disruption.

“I'm a really big believer that every  leader, every manager, every one of us, if we can just understand our brains a little bit better, we can help ourselves and those we work with to have more good days at work.” Hilary Scarlett

Here are five of the most important things relevant to change management that neuroscience has taught us.

1. Neuroplasticity gives us immense flexibility

If we think back to when we were little and how difficult it was to tie our shoelaces; now we do it without thinking. That's neuroplasticity. Just keep practising and the brain will make it easier for you.  It creates habits, it frees our brains up to focus on more interesting things. Neuroscientists think that not only can our brains grow, restructure and learn, it's also really good for us. If you want to keep your brain sharp well into old age, learn something difficult and challenge your brain. And don’t ever feel that you are incapable of adaptation to change – we all are.

2. Brains are energy-expensive – and it makes us conform to the status quo

Our brains account for 2% of our body weight, but use 20% of our energy. It's almost as if our brains know that they use up this disproportionate amount of energy, because if they can, they will choose to be lazy. Our brains like habits. That’s why, in an organisation, we will tend towards doing things the way we’ve always done them. It’s almost the downside of neuroplasticity that once our brains have defined a route, we will stick to it. That’s one of the reasons why we find change hard.

3. Our lifestyles have changed, but our brains haven’t

Our brains have not changed that much since we lived on the Savannah. Its aim is our survival. To achieve that, it focuses on two things: it wants to minimise threat and it wants to seek out reward. And of the two, by far the more important is to minimise threat. Our brains are much more interested in threats than they are in rewards, and the threat response (adrenalin, cortisol, stress hormones) is fast acting; whereas our reward response, dopamine, is slower and milder; because it’s less important to our survival. Unfortunately, in the modern workplace, this threat/reward axis is now imbalanced. We might go to an appraisal and be told five great things about our performance; and yet we will fixate on the one negative. Why? Because the negative is perceived by our brains as deserving a threat response; and we are wired to amplify threats over rewards. Managers must appreciate that negative news has a much bigger impact on our brains. Furthermore, our threat response is designed to subside once the immediate risk has passed but in the modern world, we are used to stressors which remain constant – think of how many people feel permanently stressed at work; and indeed the links between stress and other health problems. Worse still, these emotions are contagious: both stress and positivity will always spread. It’s particularly important therefore for people leading change to manage their emotions and encourage a culture of calm.

4. Brains are prediction engines 

Our brains are wired to predict. and are constantly subconsciously trying to make meaning, trying to comprehend what's coming up for us next, so they can better protect us. This creates an exceptional yet challenging insight: we all think that what we see is reality, but our brains are actually doing a huge amount of interpretation on our behalf. If you’ve ever walked out of a meeting and compared notes with a colleague only to realise that you both have very different assessments of what was said, this constant interpretation by our minds is part of the reason. Neuroscience tells us that all our brains, in any given situation, are constantly comparing: where have I been in that situation before; what was it like? Past experience therefore has a big impact on how we perceive current situations. And if in the past, change has proven to be difficult, we will be predisposed to see change negatively. Equally, if the outcome of previous change was good, I am more likely to feel fine about it. The lesson for communicating change is that a few emails won’t be enough – because our approach will inevitably be amplified by past experience.

5. Meet your executive suite 

One part of our brain has significantly evolved compared with our ancestors: the prefrontal cortex. It’s just behind our foreheads, and is often referred to by neuroscientists as the ‘executive centre’ of the brain, because it’s where we do our decision making.. When we are in a threat state, blood drains from the prefrontal cortex and we therefore become distracted, defensive and think less clearly. We can look at the world of work through a filter of threat; which is why we tend to magnify threats as being bigger than they already are, or even start to see threats where they don't exist. This is why stress can dramatically cloud our judgement. It is crucial to be aware of this in ourselves, and to see it and other people. Furthermore, we are much more forgiving to ourselves and to the people we see frequently of their stress response than we are to people we don't see so often. Change managers need to realise that people in the midst of uncertainty about change may be entirely rationally misjudging their situation – and having a bad day right now rather than being fundamentally negative people. The reverse is also true: in the absence of threat, we can find ourselves and others in what psychologists often call “flow” – a high performance state where everything feels even easier than usual.


Key takeaways

This leads us to some practical things which managers can all do to reduce the effect of change on their  team’s wellbeing – and of course in so doing improve the chance of change actually working.

1. Be mindful of the threat/reward mindset in yourself and others

Awareness itself is of enormous value. If people are struggling with change, and have goals stretching out over weeks and months, set them short-term, achievable goals. Achieving a goal is rewarding to the brain - it generates dopamine and a reward response; it will set them up to arrive the next day in a more positive frame of mind.

2. Acknowledge the good things

We have far more control over our brains than we probably realise. When we think about the good things, we tend to spot further good things that are going on. If I choose to walk into a meeting, and think, “These are good people who are trying to do good work”, I'm more likely to spot the times when they have indeed been good people doing good work. We have the choice to prime our brains to see more positive perspectives.

3. Provide certainty or autonomy where you can

Our brains are prediction engines and they crave control. You may think that in a complex change scenario, you can't give people much more certainty or control because you also don't know what's round the corner. But at least give them certainty around the communication process: commit to sitting down every Friday morning and explaining what you do and don’t know. Even that tiny bit of control makes a big difference to our brains and perspectives.

4. Understand the pressure on more distant colleagues

We saw earlier that we are much more forgiving to ourselves, and to our ‘in-group’. It’s part of our social structure that we are less engaged with more distant people. So keep that mantra in your head: someone who is obstructive or negative is usually just a good person having a bad day.

5. Enable people to reach their own insights

This is a close relative of the idea of control. All the neuroscience work shows that giving people a chance to reach their own insight as to why a change is a good idea makes it vastly more tolerable (or even motivating). But leaders tend to have the luxury of several months of looking at the data and options and then going into broadcast mode with their employees. And then they wonder why most employees dig their heels and don't want to play ball. Giving teams a chance to reach their own insight about why a change is the right option is hugely empowering. Choice, as we saw earlier, is hugely important to the human brain - to the extent that we actually process thoughts about goals that we have chosen ourselves in a different part of the brain to goals we have been given by our managers. So giving people a chance to look at information for themselves can be powerfully instructive.

6. Laughter

Last but not least, laughter. We talk about gallows humour when times are tough, and that’s not by chance. Laughter is a great de-stressor for the brain.

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