The neuroscience of change

Business leaders everywhere know that success isn’t possible without changing the day-to-day behaviour of people throughout the company. But changing behaviour is hard. (Even when new habits can mean the difference between life and death e.g. adopting healthier day-to-day habits after having undergone coronary bypass surgery, nine out of 10 patients do not manage to follow though.)

However, behavioural change – and business success – has a much likelier chance of occurring if we heed new evidence about change. Breakthroughs in cognitive science about how our brains function contain pointers worth taking serious note of.

People are predisposed to resist some forms of leadership and accept others. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz in an article The Neuroscience of Leadership (Strategy + Business, Summer Issue 43, 2006) reported several conclusions that could make the art and craft of leadership more effective:

Change is pain
Organisational change provides sensations of discomfort to your working memory, which is a short-term, fairly overtaxed “holding area”.  When people encounter something new this memory is frequently engaged. Change obliges your working memory to actively compare and consider benefits.

Another part of our brains is the habit-centre. It has neural circuits of long-standing habits developed because of extensive experience and training. This part functions exceedingly well without conscious thought in any routine activity thus freeing up the processing resources of your working memory.

You learn to drive a car really well “without thinking”. If in another country you try to drive on the opposite side of the road, the act of driving becomes difficult.

In a company a situation of strategic or organisational change, any change of a hardwired habit takes a lot of effort and attention. Change leads to a feeling of discomfort which leads to avoidance (or flight).

Leaders tend to underestimate the challenges inherent in implementation.

Certain ways and means of inducing change are less successful than others.

Behaviourism doesn’t work
Take note that change efforts based on a carrot and stick approach, that is, on typical incentives and threats, rarely succeed in the long run.

Humanism is overrated
A person-centered approach (inspired by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow) is usually not sophisticated enough. This school of thought assumes that self-esteem, emotional needs, and values could provide leverage for changing behaviour. Help people to reach self-actualisation. The carrot and stick approach was abandoned and the focus was on empathy.

This approach might produce an effective solution – provided enough time is assigned to the process. However, do not use elements of persuasion. Many managers (and consultants) believe that they should convince people of the value of change. Instead, managers should recognise that brains are pattern-making organs with an innate desire to create their own novel connections.

When people solve problems themselves the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline. Rather than lecturing and providing solutions, effective managers ask pertinent questions and support people in working out solutions of their own. But even a Socratic approach can backfire when wielded by a leader who is trying to convince others of a particular solution or answer. Do not try to cloak an effort to persuade as authentic enquiry. The brain picks up the difference and resists.

Even if it is their own interest to change, a behaviourism approach is usually not sophisticated enough to induce people to change.

Focus is power
The …“mental act of focusing attention stabilizes the associated brain circuits. Concentrating attention on your mental experience, whether in thought, an insight, a picture in your mind’s eye, or a fear, maintains the brain in a state arising in association with that experience.”

We now know that the brain changes as a result of where the individual puts his or her attention. The power is in the focus.

People who practice a specialty every day literally think differently, through different sets of connections, than people who don’t practice a specialty.

Deliberate practice plays a huge role in achieving success.

Expectations shape reality
People’s mental maps, their theories, expectations, beliefs and attitudes play a more central role in human perception than was previously understood. (Tell someone a pain-reducing pill is being administered and they will experience a reduction in pain, despite the fact have received a placebo, a sugar pill.)

People experience what they expect to experience.

This has important implications for business. Put the right people in positions that are extensions of their personal maps. For instance, two individuals work in a call centre. The one views customers as troubled children, and sees complaints as needing to be allayed. The other views callers as busy but intelligent professionals and hears valuable suggestions of improving a product or service.

How would you facilitate change?
One way of facilitating change is by cultivating moments of insight. A large-scale change in behaviour requires a large-scale change in mental maps. This requires an event or emotional experience that allows people to change their attitudes and expectation more quickly and dramatically that they normally would.

During moments of insights a complex set of new connections is being created which has the potential of overcoming the brain’s resistance to change. But this requires a deliberate effort to hardwire an insight by paying it repeated attention.

“Leaders wanting to change the way people think or behave should learn to recognize, encourage and deepen their team’s insights.”

People need to own any kind of change initiative for it to be successful.

Attention density shapes identity
For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions. People will experience the excitement of insight only if they go through the process of making a connection themselves. The moment of insight is a positive and energizing experience which helps fight against the internal and external forces trying to keep change from occurring, including the fear response.

The term attention density is used define the amount of attention paid to a particular mental experience over a specific time. The greater the concentration on a specific idea or mental experience, the higher the density. With enough density, the individual thoughts and acts of the mind can become an intrinsic part of an individual’s identity.

You’ve probably had the experience of going to a training programme and getting exited about new ideas, only to realize later that you can’t remember what the new ways of thinking were. Specific research has shown that a training programme alone increased productivity 28%, but the addition of follow-up coaching increased productivity 88%.

Small bites instead of large blocks
Given the small capacity of the working memory, many small bites of learning, digested over time, may be more effective than large blocks of time spent in workshops. The key is getting people to pay sufficient attention to new ideas.

Perhaps any behaviour change brought about by leaders, managers and coaches is primarily a function of their ability to induce others to focus their attention on specific ideas, closely enough, often enough, and for a long time enough.

How can leaders, managers, consultants and coaches effectively change their own or other people’s behaviours?
Start by leaving problem behaviours in the past. Focus on identifying and creating new behaviours. In due course, these may shape the dominant pathways in the brain. Use a solution-focused questioning approach that facilitates self-insight, rather than through advice-giving.

If Rob does not reach an objective, do not focus on his non-performance, as this might lead to forming cognitive connections (also know as reasons or excuses) as to why the objective was not reached. Although they might be true, they do little to foster any change.

Rather focus Rob’s attention on the new circuits he needs to create to achieve his objectives in the future. Ask: “What do you need to do to resolve challenges like this?” This might lead to an insight. If the manager regularly asked Rob about progress, it would remind Rob to give this new thought more attention.

Remind people of their positive insights and do so one idea at a time. Behaviourists call it “positive feedback”, which is a deliberate effort to reinforce behaviour that already worked. If conducted skillfully, this is one aspect of behaviourism that has a beneficial cognitive effect.

How to change a culture?
A leader might wish to change the way that an entire company thinks. A common approach is to conduct a cultural survey. The aim might be to identify the source of problems.

A better alternative would be to paint a broad picture of being more entrepreneurial without specifying the changes that individuals need to make. Ask them to picture the new behaviours in their own minds and in the process develop energizing new mental maps. These might have the potential to become hardwired circuitry.  The team would focus on their own insights and the manager would regularly provide “gentle reminders” so that these entrepreneurial maps become the dominant pathways. He also needs to catch the team when they get sidetracked and gently bring them back.

The power truly is in the focus, and in the attention that is paid.

The answer to all challenges to change
In a nutshell: Focus people on future solutions instead of on past problems, let them come to their own answers, and keep them focused on their insights.

Apparently that’s what the brain wants.

Focus on incremental progress against measures, and develop a fine-grain awareness of processes and how to improve them. In daily and weekly meetings participants could systematically talk about the means for making things better, and in doing so, train their own brains to make new connections.

The discomfort of managers
Few managers are comfortable putting these principles into practice. Our management models are based on knowledge. We follow a “transmission” approach to transferring information – exemplified by lectures and textbooks where knowledge is transmitted to a passive receiver. This is the prevailing teaching method used in universities and business schools. Managers tend to use models that they have endured. For many managers, “leading others in such a new way may be a bigger change, and therefore challenge, than driving the other side of the road”.

Change is all about learning
Peter Drucker said: “We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.”

The authors of the article, on which this post is based, observe: “In the knowledge economy, where people are paid to think, and with constant change, there is more pressure than ever to improve how we learn”.

As a consultant, I have to make some serious changes.

PS. You will find the article under reference at .


2 Responses

  1. Hi Albert

    Interesting newsletter. So nice to see physiology type research like this applied to business/leadership. How cool! L

  2. Hi Lucy
    Many thanks for your comment!

    I really believe the research findings are important. I, for one, will make a real effort to heed them and thus to improve my learning curve and those of my clients. Results depend on our combined learning. Albert

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