Impacts of Neuroscience on Change Management
26th August 2020

Impacts of Neuroscience on Change Management

Emotion Eats Change Management for Breakfast

Written by Dan Schmitz

This brief article proposes that it’s the process of change that matters.  The reason the process matters is based on some of the basic learning from neuroscience. If you take a short bit of time to consider the  implications, it might influence the way you think about organization change and your role as a leader. 

Why does the belief that organizational change is notoriously difficult to effect and maintain exist? 
If leadership really does perceive something important that the rank-and-file don’t see, then why shouldn’t a good rational argument and an effective communication plan create needed change? 
Why isn’t the standard outcome of a change initiative success rather than partial success, outright failure, or resistance? 

People are Emotional

American psychologist LouiCozolino, Ph.D., has something striking to say on the matter. He says, “Because thinking serves at the pleasure of emotion, emotional maturation provides the foundation for the quantum leap from intelligence to wisdom.” Thinking serves at the pleasure of emotion. Emotion can override thinking. Neuroscience helps us understand some of the triggers of a powerful emotional response. Traditional approaches to change do not account for these triggers and thus tend to inflame these responses. The result is an orientation among those you’re asking to change to move “away” from the perfectly rational argument you’ve constructed to promote change. 

Change Readiness is Different than Change Management

The latter is literally managing change into an organization. Someone has decided the course of action. This decision is now a critical input into a process whose outcome is intended to be changed behavior among the “others”This is a perfectly rational, process-based view of change for those who hold the logic of the bureaucratic hierarchical design and vertical control. A problem arises when we add people into this process view of change. Change management is dissonant with what neuroscience tells us about people and their social experience. 

Neuroscience with Change Readiness

It is compatible with people’s social needs. Because of this, people are drawn toward the change, not pushed away from it. This leads to change that is faster and more completely adopted with fewer pockets of  lasting resistance. The result, and what leaders really want, is a change that delivers needed benefits faster than the traditional model of  change. A further benefit of the process that leads to change readiness is that it’s based on organizational learning. This makes the organization more adaptive in the future. This outcome is also typically prized by leaders. 

This neuroscience-generated knowledge of emotion can seem familiar  to the most self-aware among us. After all, this science is essentially pointing its attention at us and our reactions to social experienceHowever, when we make this understanding explicit, shared, and connected to organizational change, it promotes new understanding. We can better understand why even the most logical, well-intended, and well-executed change management programs can fail because of emotion. We can see an alternative change process that succeeds, with some irony, also because of emotion. This application of neuroscience  is thus a story of emotion and its impact on the change your organization must make. It is the story of how emotion eats change  management for breakfast.

Dan Schmitz is a Consultant at ON THE MARK. OTM has been in business since 1987 and is a leading organization design firm. Over our 31 years in business, OTM has completed close to 450 redesigns around the globe across most industries. Our experience and passion for collaborative business transformation is supported by pragmatism, systems thinking, and a belief in people that’s unparalleled.

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