‘What got you here, won’t get you there’. This has never been a more accurate statement for organisations and their leaders. Today’s business world is a place of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. But it’s also a place of innovation, connection and potential. To thrive within it, we need to continually learn, evolve and adapt.
But change is hard. We have preferred ways of working, as individuals and organisations. Especially in large companies – ‘doing things differently’ can feel like trying to turn around an oil tanker using a canoe. However enthused and determined we are to begin with, we can be quickly drained by the rigidity and weight of the people and processes around us – and by the baggage we bring along for the ride.
Change is also scary. Our careers are staked upon the decisions we make at work. So whether projects succeed or fail has personal consequences. When we can’t predict the outcome of something because it’s new and unproven, it can feel like a huge risk – one that’s not worth taking. It’s much safer to stick to what we know and what we’ve done before – at least that way we won’t really mess up.
So why do our brains make us feel this way about change? And how can we help them to embrace the ever-changing world we live and work in?
The brain’s response to change
Deep in our temporal lobe sit the amygdalae. These clusters of neurons form part of the limbic system, the area of our brain responsible for processing emotions. They act as our threat detectors, scanning the environment for risks and triggering our stress response. The resulting changes in our bodies – increased heart rate, faster breathing and higher blood pressure – help us fight, flee or freeze in response to danger. Whilst this is useful in relation to physical threats (an out-of-control bus, for example), it’s less helpful for psychological threats, like being questioned by a senior colleague about the decisions we’ve made. Just at the time we need them most, our executive functions – our concentration, reasoning, memory, planning, problem-solving and decision making – all shut down. We just want to get the hell outta there.
In addition, our brains like certainty. They make millions of predictions for us every day about what will come next – the top stair, the key in the lock, the cat at the door. We are rewarded with dopamine (one of the ‘happy hormones’) for these small wins in our world order and when things aren’t as we expect – or we don’t know what to expect – it’s disconcerting or even distressing. Even a little ambiguity reduces our dopamine reward response and increases the likelihood of a stress response. By its nature, change involves lots of ambiguity, so it’s not surprising that our brains don’t like it, particularly at times when our wider environments feel out of control. To soothe ourselves, we seek safety – micromanaging what is within our power, taking the easy options, and seeking out information that supports what we already think (something known as confirmation bias).
Our brains also have a present bias: we overvalue the present and undervalue the future. Given the choice between a payoff today or one in a week’s time, we’ll generally go for the instant reward, even if it’s less valuable. That’s why we stay on the sofa instead of going to the gym: the present reward of being warm and cosy beats the future reward of feeling healthy. It’s also why we spend so much time replying to emails, rather than focusing on projects that will actually make a difference to our work: we get an instant dopamine buzz from responding to an alert and ticking something off our virtual to-do list, whereas it will be weeks or even months before our bigger projects come to fruition. Change takes time and mental energy, and we get distracted by all the lovely, easy things we could do instead. We assume that our future self will somehow be better placed to get on with the hard stuff.
Finally, our brains hate making mistakes. Fear of failure is a heavy burden to carry, and it’s often weightiest in our workplaces – the very places where we’re asked to be most innovative and creative. Trying new things almost always leads to errors, so if we don’t feel free to fail, we just don’t try anything new. Instead, we doom ourselves to self-inflicted censorship and ‘ideacide’, stifling any novel thoughts in fear of their being ‘wrong’. In the worst case scenarios – where we feel least psychologically safe – we can set ourselves to permanent autopilot and float along for years without ever making a ripple. All while the organisations around us slowly sink, whether they’re aware of it or not.
So, how can we make change easier?
While change will always feel uncomfortable for many of us, there are things we can do to make it easier and scary:
Get to know your stress response
David Rock’s SCARF model suggests that our fight-flight-freeze response is psychologically triggered by threats to our Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. When you feel your body entering this state, take a moment to reflect: ‘why am I feeling threatened? What has triggered me?’ Often, you’ll be able to recognise one or more of these five. Being conscious of this brings your executive functioning back into the equation and, if you’re not too deep into the stress response, it may help to lift you out – or at least hasten your recovery. And next time, it could help you to respond less quickly or less strongly to that particular threat, knowing that you’re vulnerable to it.
Encourage a growth mindset
The work of Carol Dweck suggests that either we can have a fixed mindset, where we believe that our potential is limited and predetermined. Or a growth mindset – an openness to learning new things, even through failure. To develop your own growth mindset, try resetting your inner dialogue to praise effort and persistence (‘I really stretched myself’, ‘I kept going, even though it was hard’) and to highlight opportunities to learn from your mistakes and from others (‘I’ll do it differently next time’, ‘I’ll ask x to show me’). Organisationally, develop frameworks through which your team can test and learn without retribution. This will encourage their growth mindset and help them feel psychologically safe, boosting their potential for creativity and innovation.
Have a clear vision
With our brains fighting against change, we need a really good incentive to embrace it. So, when there’s no burning platform for us to jump from, it can be hard to garner the energy to make things happen. When there’s no clear push for change (‘everything’s fine, isn’t it?’), try creating a pull instead: a strong vision of the future that inspires you and those around you. This needs to clearly communicate the purpose of the change: the hoped-for benefit, and the risks of staying as you are (even if these are as pedestrian as ‘we’ll be really bored’). Ideally, create this vision with colleagues to get their input and buy-in. You’ll end up with a better result, and the team will feel that they own it, reducing the risk of them (and their brains!) seeing it as a threat.
Find a connection
Somewhat paradoxically, our brains don’t like change, but they love novelty. The best creative ideas give us pleasure because they surprise us with a mix of the familiar and the different (a personal favourite being the Children in Need Eastenders/Coronation Street mashup – slightly off–topic, but brilliant all the same). To help change feel like a novelty, connect something from the ‘new’ to something that feels safe. You could test a refreshed meeting format in a familiar space, try something different supported by a colleague, or pilot a new way of working on a recurring activity. By breaking down change into a series of new things, it makes it feel like less of a big, permanent shift. It starts to look less like scary, hard ‘change’ and more like fun, shiny ‘novelty’.
Focus on the bright spots
When we’re thinking about change, it can be easy to get stuck in the quagmire of everything that’s wrong, spending valuable time and energy over–analysing what we want to move away from. Our brains get obsessed with the problem, and we find it harder and harder to come up with a solution – let alone a good one. An appreciative inquiry approach starts from a different perspective, focusing on what’s already working, what we could do more of, where we want to get to and how we could get there. Rather than having endless conversations about what you want to change, keep why you want to change at the heart of your thinking, and allow the bright spots – the positive, the inspiring, the best practice – to lead the way.
A word of caution: you can make data ‘prove’ almost anything, so beware of confirmation bias when using it to make a case for change. That said, we have access to more data than ever before, and it can be invaluable in informing and shaping where we want to get to and why. By having some ‘proof’ to back up an idea, we can soothe our anxious brains (and those of our colleagues), creating more certainty and reducing the risk of mistakes. We can use it to measure progress as we go along too – evolving and adapting what we’re doing in real-time to sustain this sense of safety.
Acknowledge your context
Finally, a big one. When we’re trying to bring about change in our teams, we often focus on building skills. We forget, ignore or avoid the broader context: the cultural norms, tacit knowledge and implicit ways of working in our organisations. Dealing with all this can feel too hard, so we gloss over it with a couple of training sessions and keep our fingers crossed for miracles. But when we avoid getting into the nitty-gritty and expect skills to change behaviours, we create cognitive dissonance – conflicts between contradictory ideas or beliefs. This causes us stress as individuals and can come across to those around us as naivety or a lack of integrity, leading people to disengage from us and what we’re trying to do. So, whenever we can, we need to tackle context as part of the change we’re making. And if we can’t, we need to acknowledge that it’s there, and have clear ideas for how to get around it or work with it. By being both ambitious and realistic about what can be achieved within your limitations, you’ll build the trust and confidence of those around you, and reduce the sense of threat – for your team and for yourself.
As human beings, we find change hard and scary, in part because of how our brains are wired. We respond to it as a threat, impairing our executive functioning. Favouring the status quo, avoiding ambiguous situations where we feel out of control. We put it off, prioritising easy tasks that give us an instant hit of dopamine. We stick to what we know, to avoid the emotions that come with making mistakes.
But there are ways we can make change easier. By understanding what’s going on in our brains, we can take action to proactively reduce the sense of threat we feel. This refocuses on the positive potential that change holds. Instead of feeling like change is happening to us, we can make it happen. And then we can use it to build organisations that truly serve our customers, colleagues and communities. Organisations that are meaningful and purposeful, and ready to learn, evolve and adapt to stay relevant in our ever-changing world.
If you would like to learn more about how we can help bring powerful change to your teams get in touch with our team of experts.