How our brains respond to change

What happens in the human brain when people encounter change, and how can we use this information to improve how we deal with change?

The basal ganglia handles routine tasks basically automatically, whereas it’s the prefrontal cortex that gets involved with new tasks and situations, which generally take a lot of energy.

The orbitofrontal cortex monitors threats, and creates pain or discomfort in new situations, while the amygdala manages our fight, flight and freeze response.

So how do we navigate these innate responses to change, and how can we get people enthused and engaged?

Read on to find out.

Watch the next video in this series here:

Part 6 – Leading Change: Strategies & Skills for Successful Change

And watch the previous video here:

Part 4 – How to Avoid Change Fatigue: The Ideal Conditions for Change

And if you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.

Video Transcript

The neuroscience of change

Hi, Andrew from SACS.

And welcome to video number five in our six video sequence about the psychology of change management.

This one’s all about the neuroscience of change.

In the sequence so far, we’ve told you a range of things about change. We talked about what the new normal is likely to be in the post-COVID world.

We talked about psychologically what change actually is. We looked at why people vary in their acceptance of change.

And in the last one, we talked about the preconditions of change and the phenomenon of change fatigue.

So this is all about the neuroscience of change.

And then the final video will be a really practical description of how to do change using the principles that we’ve identified in this sequence so far.

A map of the human brain

So this is a map of the human brain (refer to the video) and it shows a range of important characteristics of the brain associated with change.

Familiar tasks, things that are done extremely routinely, tend to be undertaken by a part of the brain called the basal ganglia.

And this is a part of the brain that’s largely unconscious.

That’s why people do stuff all the time and don’t think about it very much.

The prefrontal cortex & change

The second part of the brain which is relevant to the change equation, is the prefrontal cortex. And the prefrontal cortex is what undertakes new tasks.

The prefrontal cortex has a range of very important characteristics.

One, anything that you learn brand new, chances are you’ll be learning it by the prefrontal cortex. So this is the conscious part of your brain that focuses on things.

Now, the prefrontal cortex is incredibly useful and it’s great at what it does, but it’s expensive, it takes a lot of energy to run and it also tends to have a very small bandwidth, which is to say the prefrontal cortex can focus on really only one thing at a time.

And that’s why, for instance, if you’re learning to drive a car, you remember how disconnected your actions were.

Well, it was because when you needed to operate the indicator, let’s say, you had to focus on the indicator, whereas if you do it enough, what happens is that it gets developed in your brain, the neural pathways get laid down and you can then do it unconsciously as it’s managed by the basal ganglia.

Now, the energy consumptiveness of the prefrontal cortex is why people tend to get very tired during change management, because what happens is that people in learning new tasks, they have to use their prefrontal cortex a lot and they get fatigued.

That’s also one of the reasons why people slip back to the old ways of doing things, because the brain will seek the cheapest way to do anything if it possibly can. It does not like to expend energy.

And if you think of evolution, it’s all about getting the maximum benefit with the minimum outlay from an energy point of view.

So we slip back to doing the things that live in the oldest neural pathways.

The orbitofrontal cortex & change

The next part of the brain that’s relevant is a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. And the orbitofrontal cortex looks out for threats.

So sometimes when we’re doing something brand new and we don’t think that it meets our value set or we’re not confident that it’s going to work for us, or maybe we think that we’ll lose power in this, or maybe we think that this is really not good for us in some way, that turns on the orbitofrontal cortex.

The orbitofrontal cortex occasions pain. That’s where you get the stress on your shoulders, where you get the stress in your stomach, the feeling of discomfort.

Now, this is not imaginary discomfort, this is measurable discomfort.

And so people, when they experience this, tend to resist whatever it is that you’re trying to do because of the fact that they are feeling discomfort, they’re feeling pain.

Pain is all about take me away from this. Never get in this situation again. I must avoid this.

The role of the amygdala

And then the final part of the equation, from a neurological point of view, is the amygdalae.

And so the amygdalae are the seat of the fight, flight and freeze response.

Now, the fight, flight and freeze response, that amygdala response, really evolved at a time when our threats were physical and they were short-term. We’re about to be eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger.

These days, our threats tend not to be physical so often and they tend not to be so short-term.

So we’re experiencing stress at work, so we’re asked to do something new that we don’t understand, so somebody is being nasty to us at work. That kind of stuff tends to be enduring.

And not only that, the old-fashioned responses. The fight response, I will attack this threat. The flight response, I will run away. The freeze response, I’ll hide and hope that it all goes away.

They tend not to work. So what we get is sublimated versions of these. So the fight response might be I won’t go to work or maybe I’m going to embark in undermining this in some way.

The flight response. Well, maybe I don’t go to work and for a different reason, not because I’m angry, but because I’m fearful of what I might experience.

The neurological reasons why people resist change

So these are neurological reasons why people resist change.

Firstly, they want to do it the cheapest way, which is the basal ganglia way, which is the unconscious, the way that they’ve done it for years.

New tasks, learning new things is very time-consuming and it’s very energy-consuming so people will feel tired.

When people perceive errors, in other words, they’re being asked to do something that they don’t really understand or they don’t see how it’s going to work out for them, or maybe they think it’s outright bad, they’re likely to get this response from the orbitofrontal cortex, which will occasion pain.

And finally, that’s likely to cause the fight, flight and freeze response. And when that happens, you get the collateral damage of change.

Things like absenteeism, things like staff turnover, things like politics, all of those nasty things that tend to happen when people are asked to do things and they don’t understand why.

But the following diagram (refer to the video) also shows you what happens from a decision-making point of view.

System One vs System Two thinking

Now, this concept of System One and System Two, this is expressed very eloquently in the Daniel Kahneman book called Thinking Fast and Slow.

So System One and System Two are, in Daniel Kahneman’s thesis, the idea of something relatively analogous to the old brain and the new brain.

System One is the old brain where people make their decisions intuitively, based on feelings.

System Two is where people think their decisions through and make them advisely, thoughtfully, planfully, if you want to put it that way.

So people tend to spend about 80% of their time in System One.

And that’s a really important thing from a change management point of view, because if you truly want to get people to change, you need to turn on their prefrontal cortex, and so you need to get System Two happening.

And the best way of doing that is to cause people to be focused on what they’re doing, focused particularly through empowerment.

And in the next video we’ll get into some more detail about that.

Destination-based change

So the method of change that we’re going to explain to you is a thing called destination-based change, based on the neuroscience of leadership, which is partially drawn from the work of Rock and Schwartz going back some years.

Now, one of my favourite expressions is that the secret of life is what you focus on.

If you focus on things that are helpful to you, you will tend to have higher levels of productivity and wellbeing.

If you focus on things that are unhelpful to you, you have lower levels of productivity and wellbeing.

And in change, one of the worst things you can do is to focus on the past, because it tends to concretise people in the past.

It’s also a big mistake to focus on process. I think we should try to avoid the term change management. I mean, why talk about the process?

What really helps people is to focus on a future, a destination that’s worth pursuing. And that’s the concept of what we call destination-based change.

So instead of focusing on what’s wrong, why don’t we imagine, develop a really clear image of what the perfect state is and make plans about how to get there.

That’s a way of developing change management that is likely to avoid the amygdala, and it’s also likely to be able to engage people in a process that they would like to get involved in.

There’s no need to be defensive if we’re not evaluating the past.

If we’re making a plan to get to a wonderful future that we all agree on, well, all of a sudden we’ve got no tribes in the change management process. We don’t have people resisting out of defensiveness.

That’s a really important tip. Focus on the future. And that’s what we call destination-based change.

Define it and then make a plan about how to get there.

A strange characteristic of the human brain

Now, this slide (refer to the video) shows you a strange characteristic of the human brain. When we turn on one part of the brain, we tend to turn off other parts of the brain.

And road rage is a negative example of this. Road rage is where you have what Daniel Goleman would have called an amygdala hijack.

Somebody’s driving along, they get cut off, all of a sudden, bang. They’ve been stressed during that day. And the extra stress tips them over to the point where their amygdala has taken over their systems.

And often people when they’re in a road rage situation, later on, they’ll reflect back on it and they say, I can’t believe I did that.

Well, it was a particular part of their brain that did that. The amygdala hijacked their entire cognitive system.

So the alternative is also true though.

How to turn off the amygdala

If you focus on things that can be helpful, you can turn off things like the amygdala.

And one of the most powerful things to do is to turn on the new brain by virtue of focusing on things that will cause the old brain not to have the energy to operate.

So examples of this is choosing to lead learning in such a way that we turn on the new brain.

Things like focusing on the future, focusing on reflection. So reflection would be, okay, we could consider this, or we could consider doing that. How would that work?

Focusing on solutions rather than problems.

Feed-forward rather than feedback, and if you do these things, you’ll get the benefits of change, enthusiasm, positive emotions, and engagement.

Feed-forward vs feedback

And you’re probably wondering what I mean by feed-forward and feedback.

People hate feedback. People fear feedback. And if you don’t believe me, walk up to somebody right now and say, I have some feedback for you. Watch their eyes.

You’re going to see them get defensive immediately. And in fact, the word feedback can be shown from brain studies to turn on the amygdala itself.

The alternative is not giving people feedback, it’s giving people feed-forward.

So the idea of feed-forward is rather than saying to somebody, this is what’s wrong with this report.

You say to somebody, this is what needs to happen with this report to make it good enough to go to a client that’s feed-forward.

Somebody turns up late to work, you can say to them, you were late to work today. Feed-forward would be to say, tomorrow, I expect you to be at work on time.

And so the idea is that you don’t focus on what they do wrong.

You focus on giving crystal-clear guidance on what you need them to do differently in future and also express confidence in their ability to do that, agree how progress will be measured in future, and in this way you can be very assertive without expectations, without triggering so strongly the old brain.

And that can be shown to occasion much more successful change.

So in research into these topics in adult learning It can be shown that feed-forward occasions much more rapid change than feedback. Feedback tends to work only when somebody is a rank beginner at something.

Feed-forward, on the other hand tends to enduringly work and in particular, if you teach people to evaluate their own performance and to make plans about how to optimise it, that’s sustainable change management.

Difficulties in change management

Now, so far I’ve raised a range of difficulties about change management.

I’ve said that the brain hates change which is externally imposed. I said that you can get collateral damage by virtue of getting an amygdala effect.

I’ve said that people will avoid these kinds of things purely and simply because they’re uncomfortable. But that’s why many traditional change efforts fail – the carrot.

I will reward you if you go through the pain necessary to achieve this thing. I will punish you if you don’t. And whether you say that overtly or covertly, then people will get that message.

But the point is you can turn on the right parts of people’s brains to make change more achievable.

We’ve spoken about these five topics here leading up to the neuroscience of change and I hope now you’ve got a clearer idea about neurologically why people resist change.

So the next video is about how to do change and in that video we’re going to give you a number of really practical tips which will make sense particularly if you’ve seen the other five videos about how to do change and about how to do it in such a way that you bring people with you and you’re not fighting their brains, you’re working collaboratively with their brains.

Watch the next video in this series to find out more about effective change management practices:

Part 6 – Leading Change: Strategies & Skills for Successful Change

And watch the previous video here:

Part 4 – How to Avoid Change Fatigue: The Ideal Conditions for Change

And if you’d like some help to measure the change resistance of your incoming recruits or the current engagement levels of your staff, contact us about our Employee Engagement Surveys.

SACS Consulting
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