This is Your Brain on Organizational Change

by Walter McFarland  |  11:00 AM October 16, 2012

Why can’t we change our organizations? Year after year, the list of companies that no longer exist because they were unable to evolve continues to grow. It includes such household names as Sunbeam, Polaroid, Tower Records, Circuit City, and Drexel Burnham Lambert. After six decades of study, untold investment, and the best efforts of scholars, executives, and consultants, most organizational change efforts still underperform, fail, or make things worse.

This is bad news for 21st century organizations. Increasing competition, globalization, technological changes, financial upheaval, political uncertainty, changing workforce demographics, and other factors are forcing organizations to change faster and differently than ever before. Worse, there is little reason to believe the field of organizational change can be of much help. Not only is the track record of change efforts dismal — it may not be improving. Experts have reported similar results for organizational change efforts since the 1980s. Clearly, new insight is needed into how organizations can better adapt to their environments and change.

Although myriad factors are cited, the inability to engage people is the factor noted longest and most often. As organizational behavioral experts Kenneth Thompson and Fred Luthans noted almost 20 years ago, a person’s reaction to organizational change “can be so excessive and immediate, that some researchers have suggested it may be easier to start a completely new organization than to try to change an existing one.” This phenomenon, often referred to as “human resistance to change,” is possibly the most important issue facing the field of organizational change — and one that continues to baffle scholars, consultants, and executives. So, how do we effectively engage the support and creativity of a company’s employees at the moment these attributes are most needed — during an organizational change?

One source of insight may be the field of neuroscience. The study of the brain, particularly within the field of social, cognitive, and affective neuroscience, is starting to provide some underlying insights that can be applied in the real world and, perhaps, increasingly to our understanding of how to better engage human performance and creativity during change.

At the NeuroLeadership Summit, being held in New York this week, a panel discussion with senior executives and experts from The Conference Board, the Association of Change Management Professionals, Change Leaders, and Barnard College will explore the connection between neuroscience and organizational change, understanding how we can effectively deal with the human resistance to change.

The discussion will inform our work on a new organizational change model, one that takes into account how successful change functions in a modern organization, where work is conceptual, creative, and relational, and talent is portable. Keep in mind that there is no accepted general theory of change but rather traditional “best practice” clusters around a series of activities that have contributed to the continuing poor performance of change initiatives. These include:

  • Perpetual underpreparation: change is always dreaded and a surprise to employees
  • A perceived need to “create a burning platform”: meant to motive employees via expressed or implied threat
  • Leading change from the top of the organization down: only a few individuals are actively involved in the change and either under communicate or miscommunicate with others

Most of these ideas have implications in the field of neuroscience. For instance, the need to create a burning platform atmosphere at work can trigger a limbic response in employees. Instead of motivating people to change in a positive way, a burning platform makes them uncomfortable — thrusting change upon them. In another example, driving change from the top can trigger fear within employees because it deprives them of key needs that help them better navigate the social world in the workplace. These needs include status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness — the foundation of the SCARF model. If out of synch, these five needs have been shown in many neuroscience studies to activate the same threat circuitry activated by physical threats, like pain.

Keeping all this in mind, let us propose one idea we haven’t explored yet. We strongly believe that we need to think about change differently. To begin, let’s think about people differently — not as commodities to be hurried and pushed around but as sources of real and powerful competitive advantage. A second step is to see change differently — not just as a perpetual crisis, but as an opportunity to be better prepared and equipped to manage organizational shakeups as a normal part of doing business, and as an opportunity to personally develop and grow.

For many years, the training field has viewed organizational change as a process that is both linear and sequential. Instead, change has revealed itself to be non-linear and chaotic. It’s time to find a new model — one that incorporates insights from neuroscience research and takes into account 21st century workplace dynamics and realities.


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