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The Brain On Change

Brain research has uncovered some powerful concepts about the brain’s reaction to change.  Did you know that all sensory information processed by your brain is experienced as a risk (threat) or a reward?  Neuroscientist Evian Gordon says that the organizing principle of the brain is to “minimize danger and maximize reward.”
Here are some other interesting facts about your brain:

  • Consistency Counts – the brain is a prediction system that craves certainty.  When change happens, it disrupts patterns and creates a threat response in the brain.  To reduce the threat, consider ways of increasing certainty and predictability in the midst of change.  For example, provide dates when a decision will be made.  Another way of increasing certainty is to break a large project into smaller steps.
  • Connection Needed – loneliness is a threat response that comes from a lack of safe social interactions. Your brain craves glucose (food), oxygen (exercise), and connection with other people.  Many studies have shown that people who have great relationships live longer.  People who have friends in the workplace are likelier to be engaged and productive.  Rejection creates the same experience in the brain as physical injury.  When someone says their heart hurts, an MRI scan shows that’s accurate.  During times of change be intentional about staying connected with other people.
  • Fairness Matters – Fairness may be in the eye of the beholder but it makes a significant impact on the brain. The perception of unfairness results in momentous reduction in trust and collaboration.  Something as simple as treating people differently or when the “walk doesn’t match the talk” can create a threat response from unfairness. Do you remember reading stories about exorbitant executive compensation when companies were doing poorly?  Having a real conversation (talking and listening) to ensure people understand what’s going on, and why, can improve the perception of fairness.

Paying attention to the brain functions is critical during change.  Activating the threat response disables a person’s ability to solve problems, collaborate with others or make decisions.  During change many people have advised that focusing on the pain of the present will move people into the “desired future state.”  We strongly advise against any type of communication that intentionally increases the threat response and immobilizes the executive thinking processes that are necessary during change.

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