If you've struggled getting people to embrace change, it's probably because the methods used to implement it were contrary to how the human brain works.
Companies that have struggled with change should take note: recent discoveries in how the brain functions have resulted in new conclusions about implementing change. In other words, it's time to rethink how we think.
Two years ago the magazine Strategy and Business published an article entitled "The Neuroscience of Leadership". The article's authors, research psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz and executive coach David Rock, asserted that long-held beliefs about change need to be replaced.
Research into neuroscience and leadership has been gaining fans, and, based on the fact that it's this month's cover story at HRMagazine, I believe it's finally reached a critical mass.
Here's why this topic is so important: Despite being presented with myriad facts on how a change will be beneficial, some people won't make changes even if they know it's in their own best interest.
The reason has to do with what we might call "hard-wired neurons." Change is not just a matter of deciding to do something differently. Any attempt to modify our habits literally requires a change in the physiology of the brain. To maintain efficiency, our brains create "hard-wired" cells with the sole function of making our habits and routine behaviors easy.
Think about it. If you've been driving for any length of time you get in the car, insert the key, and within a matter of moments you're cruising down the road. Through repetition and time these behaviors have become hard-wired and don't require much conscious thought.
It wasn't that way when you first learned to drive. For example, if you drive a stick shift, you probably remember quite a few stalls and jerky starts. But there came a time when you found yourself sailing along in fourth gear and don't remember shifting to get there.
That's the power of hard-wired neurons. They are highly efficient and enable routine behaviors to happen easily, freeing up the brain to focus on new things that require compare and contrast decisions – which is an energy-intensive activity. It's why we can feel so tired after doing nothing but making decisions.
So what does all this have to do with implementing change? If managers and leaders keep brain function in mind as they create conditions for change, their chances for successful change improve exponentially.
Essentially, three things work together to foster change: Focus, Expectation, and Attention Density.
Focus is extremely powerful. Consider the phrase "that which you focus on you get more of." The brain pays attention to your experiences, your thoughts, your insights, your fears, etc.
Normally, neurons communicate through an energy-intensive, electro-chemical process. But when the brain finds that you're regularly focusing on something, it decides it would be more energy-efficient to create some hard wiring for that something and it grows new neurons for that purpose. Think of the driving example I gave before. It takes very little mental energy to make your muscles move through the gears once your brain created hard-wiring for how to do it.
Second comes Expectation, which means we see what we expect to see. Consider two executives. One sees workers primarily as lazy while the other sees them as desiring to do their best. Each one will look for - and see - behaviors that validate their expectations.
Amazingly, it's common for people to experience fear if they don't see what they're expecting. The brain sees it as an "error." The way to counteract this tendency is to engage people in exploring possibilities outside their expectations. People must "own" their reasons for viewing things differently; they won't just believe things to be different because you tell them so.
Finally comes Attention Density. The term refers to the amount of attention given to a particular mental experience over a specific time. Just as with meals, where dieticians have determined that four or five smaller meals are better for you than one or two large ones, small amounts of information taken in over a longer period of time yields much better learning.
This is one of the reasons executive coaching has become so popular. Where a one-time training workshop may yield "x" amount of improvement in productivity, add a follow-up coaching program and that productivity increase can double and even triple.
Bottom line, if you've struggled with change initiatives or if you'll be implementing change in the near future, spend some time learning about this. Give it your focus. Expect to be enlightened. And think about it regularly. The time has come to get real about how the brain works and how we make things happen at work.