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Carol Kinsey GomanDon’t you just hate dealing with people who fight against every plan for organizational change? You know the type: They’re disruptive, set in their ways, and highly resistant to change, even when it is obviously in the best interest of the business.

Well guess what? Research suggests that those trouble-making, inflexible, change resistors are … all of us!

Advances in brain analysis technology allow researchers to track the energy of a thought moving through the brain in much the same way as they track blood flowing through the body. And, as scientists watch different areas of the brain light up in response to specific thoughts, it becomes clear that we all react pretty much the same way to change. We try to avoid it.

Here’s why …

Most of our daily activities, including many of our work habits, are controlled by a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. These habitual, repetitive tasks take much less mental energy to perform because they have become “hardwired” and we no longer have to give them much conscious thought. “The way we’ve always done it” is mentally comfortable. It not only feels right – it feels good.

Change jerks us out of this comfort zone by stimulating the prefrontal cortex, an energy-intensive section of the brain responsible for insight and impulse control. But the prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to the most primitive part of the brain, the amygdala (the brain’s fear circuitry, which in turn controls our “flight or fight” response). And when the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed with complex and unfamiliar concepts, the amygdala connection gets kicked into high gear. All of us are then subject to the physical and psychological disorientation and pain that can manifest in anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, fatigue or anger.

It’s no wonder that logic and common sense aren’t enough to get people to sign up for the next corporate restructuring.

So what’s a change agent to do?

1. Make change familiar

If you show people two pictures of themselves – one an accurate representation and the other a reversed image – people will prefer the second, because that’s the image they see in the mirror every day.

With change comes the need for an ongoing communication strategy. It takes a lot of repetition to move a new or complex concept from the prefrontal cortex to the basil ganglia. Continually talking about change and focusing on key aspects will eventually allow the novel to become more familiar and less threatening.

2. Let people create change
No one likes change that’s forced on them, yet most people respond favourably to change they create. Brain research shows us why this is so. At the moment when someone chooses change, their brain scan shows a tremendous amount of activity as insight develops and the brain begins building new and complex connections. When people solve a problem by themselves, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline, and this natural “high” becomes associated positively with the change experience.

This means that you can’t “sell” change and you can’t lead it with command and control tactics. But you can provide enough background information (about trends, customer demands, competitive pressure, and other key issues) and a forum for people to reflect on and discuss the implications of those forces for the organization. Rather than lecturing and providing all the answers, try asking questions and letting people work out the solutions on their own.

3. KISS your communication
The prefrontal cortex can deal well with only a few concepts at one time. As tempting as it may be to lump everything you know about the change into one comprehensive chunk – don’t do it. Your job is to help people make sense of complexity by condensing it into two or three critical goals they can understand and absorb.

4. Never underestimate the power of a vision
Human beings are teleological. That is, we are attracted to (or repelled by) images we hold in our minds. If all the mental pictures employees hold are of happier times in the “good old days” or the painful reminders of unsuccessful change efforts of the past, they will naturally resist the next announced change.

Here’s where a vision becomes crucial. And, by using the term vision, I’m not referring to a corporate statement punctuated by bullet points. I’m talking about a clearly articulated, emotionally charged, and broad picture of what the organization is trying to achieve.

5. Don’t “sugar coat” the truth
The prefrontal cortex is always on guard for signals of danger. When overly optimistic outcomes or unrealistic expectations are exposed (and they always are) the prefrontal cortex switches to high alert – looking for other signs of deception and triggering the primitive brain to respond with feelings of heightened anxiety.

6. Help people pay attention
The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain. In fact, attention is continually reshaping brain patterns. Concentrating attention on a thought or an insight or a fear will, over time, keep the relevant circuitry open and dynamically alive. With enough focus, these circuits become stable, physical links in the brain’s structure.

The term “attention density” refers to the amount of attention paid to a particular mental experience over a specific time. The greater the concentration on a specific idea, the higher the attention density. High attention density facilitates long-term behavioural change. One way to encourage people to pay attention to new ideas is to continually repackage them in attention-grabbing ways – in a story, a game, an experience, a humorous skit, a metaphor, an image, or even a song. And the way to focus people on the organization’s optimal future is to get them to pay attention to their own insights and to develop pictures of the needed new behaviours in their own minds.

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.

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