The Neuroscience of Change

Many of us struggle with change, whether it's big or small, personal or work related, good or bad. Of course change is inevitable. Especially within a work context where change can be brought about for reasons beyond an individual's control. We all react differently to change so it's super important that as leaders we're able to support our teams through change - a new manager, a new desk, a new office or new leadership (or sometimes all of the above!)

Neuroscience of change brain.

Many of us struggle with change, whether it's big or small, personal or work related, good or bad. There are neurobiological reasons for this, which is to say - people have evolved to like statis or things staying the same. Unfortunately in the modern world, there's a lot more change than many of us know what to do with.

So why is it that so many people feel anxious about change? To uncover the reason, let's dive into the neuroscience behind change.

The Case of The Amygdala

Don't worry, we're not going to make you do brain surgery or anything that's going to make your brain hurt, too much. But it might be useful to just have a quick refresh on the main structures of the brain. For our purposes here, we're only going to look at two main kinds of structures, parts of the brain that react quickly and instinctively, and those that react more slowly and rationally.

The amygdala is an example of a part of the brain that reacts very quickly. This is because it's the part of the brain that reacts to danger. This could be anything from not being able to see where you're going because there's a large and hungry-looking lion in front of you, or not being able to see where you're going because a very big change is looming. Unfortunately, your amygdala works very quickly and doesn't make any distinction between the two situations. This isn't entirely unreasonable, for the last year or so, going into the office has been relatively unsafe.

Fight or Flight at Work

This means that when you find yourself in a dangerous situation, your amygdala kicks in and helps you get out of there. This is commonly known as the 'fight or flight' response. Of course, this is great when the danger your amygdala is reacting to is a lion. It's less great when it's the perceived danger of moving back to an office. If you're a team leader, manager, or working in HR, you may have been on the receiving end of people's fight or flight response when it comes to change around the workplace.

The important thing to remember is that when the amygdala is activated people feel less secure and safe, the emotional part of their brain is lacking the security it craves and is sending danger signals. In short, in the face of change, people will feel less happy because their emotional brain is destabilised.

Walk Towards, Run Away

Because of the way our brains are structured, our response to danger is essentially a big ON/OFF switch, which is quick and responsive, but our more rational structures like the limbic system and neocortex take a lot more time and energy to engage. This means that we're much better at running from danger than toward rewards. Neuroscientists call this the walk towards, run away phenomenon.

What it boils down to is that even if a change might be for the better, our brains are more likely to encourage us to run away from potential danger. This is because our emotional brains don't learn very well there's a reason they're sometimes referred to as the reptile or chimp part of the brain, they've stayed the same for a long time. On the other hand, the parts of our brain that respond to rewards are very slow to activate.

This means that we're likely to take a while to warm to something as being an overall good thing, whereas we're likely to make very snap decisions about whether things are dangerous or bad.

Using Neuroscience to Cope With Change

Once we know that our emotional brain is being scared off before our rational brain can parse the information properly, we can use this information to our advantage. All we need to do is face down the fear until our brain realises that there's no immediate danger, and then wait for our rational brain to kick in.

Of course, saying this is much easier than actually doing it! This is why a communication is so important. Letting everyone know that change is coming, what's going to be happening, and what is and isn't within their control is key. The point is to reassure everyone's emotional brains that there isn't a lion coming to eat them and that this change is, in fact, positive.

It's important to highlight positive aspects to change, and also involve people to understand what they might want and need to make the change easier on them. Not only this but things like socialising with your colleagues or getting your favourite coffee will help your amygdala to start to chill out. This will leave your slower reacting parts of the brain time to start to rationally appreciate the positives.

How to Manage Change For Your Team

One of our most popular articles, written on the eve of the first UK lockdown, is about how to manage your team through times of change. Here you'll find some top tips about motivating staff through change, including how to ensure you have a vision that guides your team like a compass, to communicate change clearly, and to identify role models and clear leadership structures which will help everything on an even keel.

The key thing is to make sure you get plenty of feedback. If you know who on your team is struggling with change, you can help them manage their fears, and come up with a plan to tackle any potential problems which may arise. Our Wellbeing survey is specifically designed to help you keep an eye on the emotional wellbeing of your team. This will help you come up with a tailored strategy that takes into account the individuals on your team, and the specific challenges they're facing.

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