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June 13, 2006

Neuroscientists find: Change Hurts

(Posted by francois to: Strategy | human resources | self-organization )

brain.jpgA fascinating article in the most recent issue of Strategy + Business from Booz Allen & Hamilton, The Neuroscience of Leadership, describes how change hurts, how the carrot and stick approach to management does not work, and how people who focus on different things have physiological differences that prevent them from seeing the world the same way.

It's no secret that people resist change - even when their life depends on it! New advances in neuroscience found that the brain relegates routine tasks to a part of the brain that requires little energy - freeing up the more conscious part of the brain, and also the more energy-intensive part, to process new things. So say you have been driving a car for awhile, you will probably do it "without thinking," but if you get into a country where they drive on the other side of the road, that same activity will now become a very intensive and tiring experience. The same is true with organizational change. After a while people will sell ideas, go to meetings, and manage others unconsciously - and trying to change their routine will be tiring and uncomfortable.

But that is not all - there is another force at work in the brain that resists change. The brain is very much wired to detect "errors" in its environment - perceived differences between expectations and actuality. When an error is detected, it triggers the fear circuitry in our brain, which is one of the most primitive parts of our brain, and which basically hijacks our thinking. We become emotional and start acting impulsively - our animal instincts take over.

So try changing someones behavior and their brain will start sending powerful messages that something is wrong, thus decreasing their capacity for higher thought. Change results in discomfort and stress...

Another interesting finding of the study is that by focusing attention on something - a particular problem or process -, a person will develop new neural connections which if reinforced enough will become part of their subconscious. This has some interesting consequences. The first one is that if a person starts focusing on a "problem", he or she will start developing new connections (also known as reasons) for why the problem occurs. While they may be true, they will do little in support of change. That also means that the "carrot and stick" approach to changing people's behavior is flawed, as it focuses the person's attention to the problems that are causing the behavior that we want changed instead of the solutions.

Another consequence of this finding is that people who tend to specialize in certain fields - marketing, sales, finance, etc. - tend to develop brain connections to handle their job with the least amount of energy possible. That means that a long term finance person and an old engineering hacker have their brains wired differently - and they will never see the world the same way, even if the rest of their worldview were the same!

So what are we to do if we want to foster change? The study also found that if the brain has a "moment of insight" coming from within (coming to a solution/conclusion by yourself), that moment is associated with a sudden adrenaline-like burst of high energy that is conducive to creating new links (change) in the brain. So if you want to instill change, you have to focus people on solutions instead of problems, let them come to their own answers, and keep them focused on their insights. That simple!

Oh - and the next time you get in a argument with the finance guy - remember, his brain is wired differently than yours!!

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Posted by francois at June 13, 2006 09:58 AM | Bookmark This

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