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The Neuroscience of Change

Ellen Whitehead | 29th March 2021

We’ve got big changes on the horizon. With lockdown lightening over the coming days and weeks, many of us may be starting to think about getting the future of work and returning to the office. After a year of working from home, this might be a bit of a shock to the system. Although some of us may be chomping at the bit to get back into our pre-pandemic routines, many of us have built a new schedule that will need rethinking as we re-enter the world outside our front door. 

Here’s the thing about change, we all react differently to it. But often our reaction isn’t completely rational. It’s likely that if you think carefully about returning to working in the office, you know that you were able to do it before, and you quite like being around your colleagues, even though they may occasionally microwave smelly fish. And let’s face it, you’re getting a bit bored of your calls being interrupted by the dog. 

So why is it that so many people are feeling anxious about this 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 when returning to 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 going back to the office. 

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 phased approach may be better for you and your team. Starting by meeting up casually outdoors in the first instance, or perhaps meeting a small group of colleagues in the office at a time. 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. 

Once you start to associate the commute and office environment with some of the more positive aspects – like socialising with your colleagues or getting your favourite coffee on your way to the office – your amygdala will 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 well-being 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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