Why We Can't Manage Change: Blame Our Brains

Manage Change to Thrive in Today’s Chaos!
In order to learn how to embrace change and thrive in environments of perpetual chaos like we find ourselves in today, we need to answer the question: “Why do we humans hate change so much, and resist it so fervently?” What is this deep-seeded fear that we have of the unknown? Why do we have such a pathological fear of change? For an acceptable answer, don’t look to business consultants or organizational development gurus for answers. Instead, we must look to science. Specifically, we can BLAME OUR BRAINS.
New research about our brains reveals exactly why change is so hard for us to achieve, and what we can do to harness how our brain works so we can gain keen insights into how we can best manage change to unleash our trapped creativity, and significantly improve the levels of performance in the workplace and our lives in general. CIO Magazine ran a story focusing on research conducted by Results Coaching Systems’ founder David Rock and research psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz into the “neuroscience of change.” Their findings uncovered critically important strategies we can all adopt, in order to make change easier to embrace.
Why Change Is So Painful to Us.
Manage change? How can we? We all know how much change hurts. It causes us physical and psychological discomfort. Here’s why…when we encounter change, it literally lights up an area of our brain called the PREFRONTAL CORTEX (the PC.), Think about the PC like the RAM memory in a PC. The prefrontal cortex is fast and agile. It can store multiple threads of logic at once, enabling us to make computations quickly.
But like RAM, our PC’s capacity is limited. It can deal comfortably with only a handful of concepts, before we max out our capacity. When we reach our PC limit, that bumping up against a ceiling generates a physiological sense of discomfort. That discomfort produces fatigue in us, and can even lead us to feel anger towards the change.
That’s because the PC is tightly linked to the primitive emotional centers of our brain called the AMYGDALA. The amygdala controls our fight-or-flight response.
The PC crashes easily because it burns lots of fuel of the high-octane variety, glucose, or blood sugar. Glucose is metabolically expensive for our bodies to produce. Given the high energy cost of running our PC, our brain would rather run off its hard drive, called the BASAL GANGLIA (BG.) Our BG has a much larger storage capacity than our PC does. Basal Ganglia “sips”, not chugs glucose. Our Basal Ganglia stores all of our saved memories and the functions we perform most frequently – those things like shaving, bathing, brushing our teeth, etc. that dominate our daily lives.
“Most of the time the basal ganglia are more or less running the show,” says Jeffrey Schwartz, research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at UCLA. “It controls habit-based behavior that we don’t have to think about doing.” Here’ the critical piece to how this all affects your work…
We rely on our Basal Ganglia to control MOST of the repetitive tasks associated with our jobs.
The interplay between our basal ganglia and the PC explains the tremendous resistance we humans have to implementing change.
Doing what we know and are familiar with hurts less, because its comfortingly predictable. Doing things the old way, the way we’ve always done it before is performed by our basal ganglia and that requires us to burns much less less glucose than forcing us to manage (deal with) change which would force the prefrontal cortex to have to get working.
I deal with many organizations that have rightfully realized they have to manage change in order to remain competitive. While that is not only admirable but a mission-critical imperative for success in 2013 and beyond, simply demanding that your people change is NOT enough. This research into our neural network proves then telling them they have to change without showing them how to simply sets off their PC hair-trigger connection to the amygdala, which causes us discomfort, pain, and yes, RESISTENCE.
“The more you try to convince people that you’re right and they’re wrong, the more they push back,” says Rock. Even well-meaning advice quickly raises warning flags in the PC that it is soon going to become overloaded and exhausted. “Our brains are so complex that it’s rare for us to be able to see any situation in exactly the same way,” says Rock. “So when we get advice from people, we’re always finding ways that the advice doesn’t match up with our own experience or expectations.”
So, what can you do to embrace and manage change effectively? One way that I help teams get past their PC’s defenses is help them understand the environments they work in, and talk about the root causes of change and what the possible outcomes might be. Addressing people’s underlying fears help, and creating a nurturing, supportive culture that embraces risk-taking, awarding people who “FAIL GREATLY” and feel a sense of ownership towards their work product goes a long way.
A very effective organizational strategy is to create a workplace that encourages people providing ideas to change the systems, fix processes, work more productively, and find solutions. A very powerful tool for alleviating people’s discomfort in firing up the PC is to not only manage change but aggressively pursue it. Have your people ask “WHY?” and “What If?” to force them to explore uncharted waters.
We have been faced with historical change and the future will become even more chaotic. Creating cultures that manage change by teaching employees how to resolve the discomfort they feel towards change will help to maximize individual performance and adapt to constant change.
For additional information, please look into “neuroleadership” and the “neuroscience of change.”
Here is to a great, successful, achievement-filled 2013!
Ethan Chazin, The Compassionate Coach