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How our brains manage change – some reassuring science

Annette Hill draws on Hilary Scarlett’s book, Neuroscience for Organisational Change, to explore why understanding how our brains manage change is so important – now more than ever.

“Part of the appeal of neuroscience is that it resonates with people’s experience: it explains why we find uncertainty disturbing and distracting. It helps us realise that our reactions and emotions are ‘normal’ and people find this reassuring: there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just the way our brains deal with change.”

Many of us have heard a lot about the ‘new normal’ and the ‘unprecedented times’ we are living in. Speculation is rife and there’s so much going on that is beyond our control and impossible to predict. Even without the added pressure of a serious global pandemic, the pace of our current way of life (e.g. technology and instant news and information) means we’re constantly dealing with change.

When we understand how our brains work, we can work with the psychology of change and not against it. We can use this understanding to plan big change or simply to organise our days – and it’s also vital to the overall wellbeing of our brain..

Our brains deal with threat and survival. Consider for a moment a time something you care about was criticised or threatened – even at work. How did that feel at the time? Chances are you had an emotional reaction with a raised heart rate and an inability to think straight. That feeling may have lasted quite a while and even had a lasting impact. Conversely, your response to praise probably felt great at the time, but may have had less impact.

The reason for that difference in reaction is survival. Threats have to be dealt with immediately so the threat response is far stronger than the reward response. Our brains were designed for primitive living where survival depended on predicting, recognising and dealing with threats. Work and modern living have changed dramatically, but our brains have not changed all that much!

Our brains are also hardwired to predict because that helps us make decisions. Certainty and prediction also conserve energy – really important when we know that our brains are 2% of our body weight, but use 20% of our energy. So our brains take short cuts so they don’t have to work as hard.

The flipside of certainty and prediction is change. Our brains dislike change and in particular organisational or ongoing change. It means our brains can’t predict what is going to happen and we don’t know what to make of ambiguity. With certainty, even for bad news, at least we know the situation and we can plan accordingly. As Hilary Scarlett says:

“…if people are struggling with change, it is not a sign that they are… failing in some way. Our brains don’t like it. They are prediction machines that are not designed to deal with the ever-increasing speed and quantity of organisational change.”

Some uncertainty or novelty is good, but layers and layers of small changes or significant organisational change are seen by our brains as a threat. As cortisol increases, energy is sent to the parts of the body that are crucial to preserve us and away from the pre-frontal cortex, where we do our critical thinking and planning.

Even small decisions can be difficult when we can’t think clearly. We can become less resistant to stress, then we realise this and the downward spiral can become very negative. In the long term cortisol can be damaging physically and mentally – though individual levels of resilience vary, meaning responses to change can be highly variable as past experiences shape how we experience the present. (The recall of a past experience is one of our brain’s shortcuts.)

Some practical steps to help

Here are some practical steps for things we can all do at work to build on the reward response and reduce the threat response:

  • Set ourselves and those we supervise or manage short-term and achievable goals – achieving a goal rewards the brain
  • Remind ourselves and our colleagues of past achievements
  • Enable people to win
  • Give genuine praise and specific recognition. If it’s unexpected it leads to more dopamine – the brain’s reward chemical
  • Perform small acts of kindness – the effect can be contagious
  • Provide some novelty to pique interest and prevent boredom, but not so much that the constant newness becomes a threat
  • Have some fun – laughter can help productivity
  • Enable times for a quiet mind when innovation or creativity can flourish, e.g. going for a walk.

In that next instalment of this blog series, we’ll explore ways to manage our emotions and feelings during change.


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