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5 ways neuroscience can help make change stick

5 ways neuroscience can help make change stick

Five simple tips your change manager should be using to build brain-friendly change in your business.

Last month Commonwealth Bank’s CIO David Whiteing delivered a warning to his peers: “If your business transformation plans don’t scare you, they’re not bold enough and you’ll be left behind,” he said.

But what he didn’t mention is that bold plans and brain power are intrinsically connected – or at least they should be. The latest neuroscience can give us insights into emotion, attention, habit, creativity, intuition and resilience.

Here are five simple tips your change manager should be using to build brain-friendly change in your business.

 1. Harness the power of rewards

Threats and rewards are triggered in the prefrontal cortex. When we experience change, the brain goes into threat mode, so change managers should consider the threats that could be triggered by each project.

Start by getting clear on what people find threatening and override these mental events with something positive. Focus on things that matter to the group, and build rewards (perhaps something like training courses or team lunches) that keep staff feeling connected and satisfied while change is happening around them.

 To shape this element of your change strategy, ask these fundamental questions at the outset:

 What do people feel that they are losing?

  • What will they gain?
  • How clear is to them about what will change and when?
  • Prepare leaders to be honest, empathetic and transparent. They must acknowledge the change and treat people with respect.
  • Support frontline managers in communicating to their teams every step of the way. They are the most trusted source of information for teams. That means creating opportunities for team members to ask questions, express concerns and get answers. It’s also critical to outline what needs to be done – and when.
  • Appoint one or two trusted team members to be the “go to” people: they are local change agents who liaise between the team and management, and support and advocate for their teams throughout the change.

2. Build a ‘growth mindset’

Change and growth are intrinsically linked. But the problem with change is that people typically resist it: most of us prefer the status quo, however imperfect, over the unknown.

If it’s done well, encouraging a ‘growth’ mindset to change can be fun and fruitful. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor developed the theory, which posits that change is easier when it’s seen as an opportunity.

She said: “Mindset is the single attitude that separates those who succeed from those who don’t.”

Still, how do we encourage staff to get to a growth mindset? By helping them to embrace the change, commit to the process and personalise the change: if something feels personal, it’s way more likely to stick.

For his or her part, the change manager needs to be persistent, help the team reflect on strategies that work or don’t and ask – on everyone’s behalf – “How can we learn and grow from this opportunity?”

3. Encourage connections

The human impact of change is often underestimated and the emotional journey this involves, is frequently not acknowledged. People have a real need to connect to others throughout any major change. Neuroscience teaches us that relationship building and good communication are part of a powerful change strategy.

Things that can help include:

  • Prepare leaders to be honest, empathetic and transparent. They must acknowledge the change and treat people with respect.
  • Support frontline managers in communicating to their teams every step of the way. They are the most trusted source of information for teams. That means creating opportunities for team members to ask questions, express concerns and get answers. It’s also critical to outline what needs to be done – and when.
  • Appoint one or two trusted team members to be the “go to” people: they are local change agents who liaise between the team and management, and support and advocate for their teams throughout the change.

4. Set brain-friendly goals

The key to successful change is behavioural: our brains like habit and routine and it takes the brain a lot of effort to develop new habits.

Goal setting can be really helpful in building new habits, but rewiring the brain needs to ensure the goals are ‘just’ hard enough, are easy to see when achieved and are easy for the business to track and measure. A good change manager should build goals into the change process at every opportunity to make the transition as smooth as possible.

5. Allow new things to be learned in small chunks

Any repeated, intense learning experience (and let’s face it, most change brings a need for learning) requires sensory and cognitive skills. We need to understand new concepts, translate them into everyday work, memorise new processes and so on to rewire the brain on many levels.

Start the learning using a technical term called ‘distributed practice’: breaking learning into short sessions, ideally, spread over a long period of time. If the change involves formal training, remember that learners also benefit from recall and testing instead of passively reading material.

Learning in this way helps the brain to build the new neural networks needed for change to stick. Within a few days of focussed, repeated learning and practice, neural circuits in the brain begin to fire repeatedly. And as many of us know, the more we do this the better. The old adage ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ holds true.

Sue Webster is a Sydney-based freelance writer, career coach and change consultant specialising in business, innovation and change management.

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Tags Neurosciencetransformation planschange managementcommonwealth bankDavid Whiteing

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