Make change in a brain-friendly way

by | Sep 9, 2013 | Blog | 3 comments

blue-sky thinking and greener-pastures actionsWhich do you prefer?

Being involved in:

  •  Making change happen?
  •  A change management project?

The human brain detects a difference in these two scenarios and reacts accordingly.

We’re not conscious of it, but five times every second the brain is deciding if it senses a threat or reward.

The first scenario—making change—offers a more positive state with the possibility of reward. You’ve got some semblance of control, or at least choices, because you’re an active player. You’re making change happen.

The second scenario—being involved in a change management project—whether as a subject, volunteer, “voluntold” or manager comes across as more threatening. There could be danger ahead.

This danger could be a potential loss is status or resources, or worry that you may be pushed out of your comfort zone. Even if you’re leading the change project, you may be anxious about the resistance you’ll face from co-workers.

Threats have a bigger impact on our brains than rewards. Threat is faster acting, stronger and longer lasting than reward.

When you feel threatened—perceived or actual—threat takes over your attention. It becomes very hard to refocus your brain.

You also become more pessimistic, and inclined to think the worst of the situation and others. You hold less data in your working memory, and you’re not as able to see as many options or come up with as many ideas.

Your motor functions improve, which can help you physically flee or fight. However, for knowledge workers sitting in a cubicle, fighting or fleeing is hardly the most optimal action plan.

By contrast, when you’re in a positive state, you’re in a totally different frame of mind, which helps you think and perform at a higher level.

You’re optimistic. You’re open to new ideas and possibilities. You’re more supportive of yourself and others. You’re more creative and insightful.

So why aren’t we trying to help people get to and stay in a positive state at work, especially when we’re trying to navigate in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world in which change is a constant?

This is the classic case of the disconnect between what we know about science and what we do in business.

To mind the gap and try to close it, we can take these actions: 

1. Adjust our language. Instead of “managing change,” talk about “making change happen” or “facilitating change.” Who wants to be managed anymore? People would rather be involved.

2. Use the NeuroLeadership SCARF model to put and keep people in a positive state. It’s become my favorite change model because it focuses on the five key domains of human social experience that can activate an immediate threat or reward response in an individual. For more about SCARF, check out Making SCARF a daily habit.

3.  Integrate talk and actions about change into the initiative being implemented as well as the day-to-day work. Change shouldn’t be a bolt-on activity, or its own stream of work, as some people refer to it.

To get everyone feeling involved and positive, managers have to actively facilitate and lead change. They can’t put their heads in the sand and think everyone will work and play well with others during the change. Nor can managers and leaders offload the responsibility for change to the change “experts.”

To thrive in our VUCA world, we all need to share responsibility for helping ourselves and each other adjust and adapt. This is especially important when we’re tired or overworked, because our brain becomes even more vigilant searching for danger or pleasure.

We must become mutually accountable, just as everyone needs to own their own emotional intelligence.

Yes, just as some people have higher EQ and IQ than others, some are naturally more change adapt and agile than others. There’s no shame in getting outside support to build capabilities and capacity. Think trainers and coaches for the brain as well as the body.

As a coach and consultant myself, I help people adapt to organizational change. However, I’ve stopped calling myself a “change management” professional for the reasons outlined here. It can sound threatening, pretentious, and too removed from everyday work.

After thinking about the excellent webinar from the Center for Effective Organizations this summer, which I wrote about in 3 ways to be agile with change, I became even more convinced to change how I talk about what I do.

Now I refer to myself as a coach, consultant and trainer who supports the implementation of strategic initiatives. In other words, I help leaders turn blue-sky thinking into greener-pasture actions.

Or just call me Liz. That puts me in a positive state, and I hope the same for you!

By the way, if you want to know more about your brain at work, check out the book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus and Working Smarter All Day Long  by David Rock, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group.

(Full disclosure: I am a graduate of the NeuroLeadership coaching program and an associate of the company.)


  1. Sheila

    This is an important reminder and motivator to think differently and how to stay strong in the face of change. Sometimes it is simply a tweak in how we say something that is the difference between managing it and making it happen.

  2. Paulo Ariel

    Thank you Liz, really liked it.

  3. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Sheila and Paulo for weighing in. I agree, Sheila, that little tweaks can make a big difference in the impact you have on others. It’s especially helpful when you put yourselves in others’ shoes.

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