The Role of Neuroscience in Facilitating Successful Organizational Change

This post originally appeared at Emergenetics International.

How Change Affects Teams, Divisions and Organizations

Do you remember last month’s post about the difficulties of individual change? We work to maintain an equilibrium we know and understand. At the slightest perception of danger (or change), our reptilian brain can activate and start a cascading effect that inhibits clear problem solving, creativity, memory retention and decision-making, especially if change is mandated by some for others to implement. More troubling is that our resistance to change creates stress that amplifies the entire process, creating a trickle-down effect within teams, divisions and highly matrixed organizational structures. Unfortunately, instead of using courage in the face of opportunity, we mitigate in the face of fear. All this affects both the bottom line and employee satisfaction.

One characteristic remains constant throughout all the organizational change I’ve witnessed: People with good intentions make ill-informed decisions because they don’t fully understand their decisions’ impact. We tend to keep our heads down when we’re faced with stressful change; however, it’s at precisely this moment that we need to lift our heads up to observe how we’re moving forward. One of my clients, a great guy named Jack, is a leader who took a chance and lifted his head up to investigate new approaches to change in order to minimize the potential disruption to his organization.

Jack, a c-suite executive leading the global sales function of a Fortune 500 multinational organization, is intelligent, experienced and socially adept. His job is “high stress and high stakes,” which he thrives on in normal situations. However, these days his job stresses him. Sales in several key markets are declining, and it’s starting to get under everyone’s skin. The sales team lacks innovative punch and is in trouble.

Jack feels consistent pressure from the CEO to turn this critical issue around. Having tried everything they know to increase sales, he and his team find nothing sticks. In fact, as soon as they analyze and seemingly understand market trends, they’re surprised by something new, and their sales in highly competitive markets suffer. The new reality is that the market is unpredictable and changing so quickly that nobody can keep up with it.

Jack asked me to help him affect change across his organization, but he’s nervous that adding change onto everyone’s plate could tip the balance in a negative way. The truth is that before we can address any change, we must tame Jack’s inner reptile. His pet peeve is walking into market review meetings with fellow c-suite members and having to explain shortcomings. The focus is negative, and it ends up feeling personal. Since his stress level is so high, his limbic system is in overdrive and it negatively affects his thinking. Others are starting to see this too. To affect change on a large scale, across divisions, markets and countries, he and his CEO first need to understand one another and walk in lock-step, but let’s save that relationship for March’s blog post. Let’s focus here on how to address the complicated team situation.

Change initiatives tend to take prisoners and/or fall short because of the failure to understand one critical point: Every person contains a unique brain architecture. Even though we each share the same neurological wiring, our picture of the world and our experience of it sit squarely in our genetics, experiences, perspectives, points-of-view, and cultural beliefs, to name a few. All these elements affect our perspectives, expectations and attitudes about life because they’re dependent upon our focus. In a 2005 study on the placebo effect, R. Coghill and his team illuminated this point. Study participants who were administered a sugar pill but told they were taking a pain-reducing agent decreased their perception of pain by 28.4%. Here’s the kicker: The perceived decrease in pain rivaled “the effects of a clearly analgesic dose of morphine.” WOW! To me, this says that our expectation of an experience drives our perception of a situation, and this is dependent upon our neurological wiring and where we place our attention. One could argue that in a company, individuals perceive the organization differently because they’re uniquely wired. Therefore, approaching change with a prescriptive solution guarantees failure.

Although Jack was delighted to only be working with the sales organization, which tended to attract a particular type of Profile, he still had many differences to overcome– experience level, cultural background, language spoken, and market experience to name a few. When I told him this is where the fun would begin, he thought I was being facetious, but I wasn’t. I told him the key was creative insight. He stared at me in disbelief because he felt this was exactly what his team had been doing for the previous three months. I have a different take. I believe they failed to identify market changes because they didn’t know how to remove themselves from their thought processes. What they thought was innovation was simply information processing based on how they’re wired. Moreover, they’re working with the same people each day. The teams have created systems to organize thought, and this robs innovation.

In my coaching process, creative insight is the fundamental tool to lead the client through organizational change. This is achieved by asking questions to provoke thought and action on the client’s behalf. In this model, there’s no mention of negatives because that will set off a limbic reaction–remember Jack’s inner reptile. Instead, we define the outcome and work as partners to achieve it. The client’s autonomy and sense of control create empowerment, naturally sidestepping a limbic reaction because of practiced focused attention. As a result of becoming more objective, innovative thinking and better problem solving are increased and the perception of pain and stress are reduced. This is self-directed neuroplasticity in action and, when practiced over time, it will create long-term change.

Creative insight is my passion and I’m dedicated to furthering it in the workplace. Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern’s Institute of Neuroscience (and another of my favorite neuroscientists) has made a fascinating discovery about it. Just prior to the brain’s moment of insight there is a burst of high-frequency 40 Hz oscillations. These gamma waves foster the brain’s ability to create connections across it. In addition, he found that a part of the brain was activated that perceives and processes important social cognition processes, emotions and facial stimuli. His work suggests that at the moment of insight, new and complex neurological connections are being created, and it’s possible that these new connections could enable us to overcome our resistance to change. Think about it. When we’re focused on a new idea, there’s no bandwidth to reflect on how painful the change might be.

A solid creative insight process is key but to succeed it must be followed with repetition over time and concentration on the goal at hand. This is what my clients and I work on over and over again. To my delight, Jack became vested in this process and together we implemented a unique model for his team. Another approach with tremendous results that increases insight and problem solving is the Emergenetics suite of WEteam workshops. The WEteam approach helps people relax into the process of change because it teaches them to focus on a common goal, and it follows the process through to long-lasting change- organizational change, team change, and personal change.

I’m happy to report that Jack still loves his job. Often we chat about his experiences and how to further the creative insight process. The bottom line is that his people were so inspired by the notion of self-directed neuroplasticity that they bought into the creative insight method we developed. It’s changed the division and today they enjoy an increase of 30% in sales revenue. Remember, in today’s economy we’re paid to think, therefore it’s essential to find ways to further our ability to problem solve, create and innovate. Here’s to quiet reptiles and happy brains!

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