Change is pain


Advanced computer analysis of neural connections and the application of theoretical work linking the brain and the mind give the organizational leader lots to think about. Beyond carrot and stick behaviorism, fMRI’s, PET scans and EEG’s reveal new rules about change and why it hurts when someone moves your cheese.

As reported in The Neuroscience of Strategic Leadership, organizational change is unexpectedly difficult because it provokes sensations of physiological discomfort. In the brain, change is pain. First, anything “new” draws on working memory and the elegant but colicky and easily fatigued prefrontal cortex. Work that has become hardwired in the jolly mindless hum of the basal ganglia is suddenly pushed to the difficult top of consciousness. It’s a feeling that’s uncomfortable, and naturally avoided.

Second, the orbital frontal cortex has evolved to alert us of anything “new” with an error signal. This cortex is closely connected to the brain’s fear circuitry, which resides in the amygdala. Move my cheese and I’m going to have a fear response. Taken together, the brain sends out powerful messages that something is wrong, and the capacity for higher thought is decreased. “Change itself amplifies stress and discomfort, and managers tend to underestimate the challenges inherent in implementation.”

However, this natural tendency to meet change with skepticism can be overcome. And, it takes concerted effort. In a 2013 Strategy&/Katzenbach Center survey of international executives on cultural and organizational change management, “the success rate of major change initiatives is only 54 percent.”

it takes planned, proactive management of organizational change but it is feasible, realistic even when using the right organizational change management techniques. For digital transformations especially, it is critical to secure involvement and engagement at all levels of the organization, especially the digital subject matter experts. Among reasons for failure cited in the same survey, were that the change was conceived, planned and executed at the executive

level with little or no involvement from others. The survey also cites change fatigue and lack of applicable change management skills as other reasons for change failure. Now throw in the added complexity of technology and managing digital transformations. It’s easy to see why the brain initially views change as uncomfortable.

A few guiding principles can help though. In addition to getting involvement at all levels of the organization, identifying those people who are pivotal to the change, often the targets of the change, is key, along with leveraging what’s working within the culture already. The executives must be aligned and disseminate a clear vision for the future, “head” and “heart” rationale for the change and initial next steps including identification of a few key behavioral changes. Leveraging stories during change can also provide an anchor for organizational members as the company navigates the path forward.

Whether a ground-breaking branding campaign, a digital transformation or a pivot in the organization’s strategy, the brain can reframe from “change is pain” to “change is gain.”