April 28, 2015

Change is Pain: The Neuroscience Behind Leadership.


Leaders struggle with implementing changes in their organisations.

Changes (that are justified or not) are communicated to people and the most common response is resistance.

People don’t like change—in fact they run from it.

David Rock, the leading authority behind the Neuroscience of Leadership has made startling discoveries around the impact of change on people’s brains and what leaders need to be aware of to be more effective at implementing change.

Neuroscience, the study of the anatomy and physiology of the brain, integrated with Psychology, the study of the human mind and behaviour, is revealing the answers as to why change is resisted.

The new leaders of the future will do well to understand this and use it to lead and influence mindful change.

Change is Pain.

For simplicity I will divide the brain into two key areas:

1. The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) – the thinking brain associated with conscious attention

2. The Basal Ganglia (BG) – The human memory associated with routine, familiar activities—habits

The PFC is the part of our brain that takes “new” information and compares it to what we know, the “old.”

This is an energy intensive process and makes us tired. Our PFC can only hold limited information “online” at any one time. Think about how quickly you can be distracted or how drained you feel after an intensive day where your concentration was required.

The BG is the habit-center of the brain.

Routinely conducted behaviours (habits) form physically hardwired mental maps and are stored in the BG making the majority of our habitual behaviours effortless and unconscious.

This is an energy efficient cognitive process that frees up processing resources for the PFC.

Think about driving.

Have you ever driven home and wondered how you got there or even applied any attention to the process of driving?

The Implications of Facing Change.

How people run meetings, process their workload, even interact with each other is routinized and run by their BG. When faced with changes in an organisation, people’s interpretation of this is that they have to do things differently.

Changing hardwired habits requires a lot of effort in the form of attention (PFC).

This makes people feel uncomfortable and so they avoid change. This uncomfortable feeling they feel is where it gets very interesting.

Human brains have what we call an “error” detector, the difference between expectation and reality.

Imagine what a piece of chocolate looks like, how it smells and tastes. Your brain has mental maps that understand and interpret what chocolate is for you.

Now, if you put that chocolate in your mouth and you taste a sour taste your brain interprets this as an error and changes your behaviour.

The “error” signal is generated by the orbital frontal cortex, which is closely connected to the brain’s fear circuitry residing in the Amygdala (the source of the sudden and overwhelming fear or anger response).

When these parts of the brain are activated, they draw resources away from PFC, preventing us from rational thought and making us “automatically stupid.”

“Error” detection pushes people to become emotional and they become more impulsive.

When people face changes in business their brains detect “errors.”

Their amygdala is activated and they become emotional, impulsive and feel discomfort. The brain sends out powerful messages that something is wrong, the capacity for being rational is reduced and stress is amplified.

Leaders now have scientific proof of why change is hard and why people avoid and resist change.

Leaders need to understand this impact and work with their people in a way that shifts their focus around change.

My next article will address how leaders can work with this knowledge to make change easier for themselves and their people. I will impart simple techniques that leaders can use to give change initiatives a better chance of being accepted and implemented.

Change is constant—we just need to be better at helping people deal with it.



Neuroscience & Why Changing Our Habits is Hard.

Author: Stephen Light

Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Allan Ajifo/Flickr

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