Organizational change: the way our brain sees it

A vlogger named Destin conducted an experiment, where he rode a bike with a simple change of controls. When the handle bars were moved in one direction, the wheels moved in the opposite direction. A simple adjustment, but our brain knows only one way to ride a bike. So how long did Destin take to learn to ride this new bike? Eight months of daily practice.

Our point? It took an individual’s brain eight months to adapt to this minor change. Imagine what it might take to change the habits of everyone in an organization, given individual responses and coping mechanisms. 83% CEOs consider this their biggest challenge!

The human brain resists change, even for the good, because it views change as danger –  something that disrupts the familiarity and safety it already knows. Thus, it triggers the fight or flight response out of fear, which hinders our openness to new experiences, and hampers decision making skills.

Can we then help our brain feel safe and manage change better? The answer is a clear ‘yes’. Here are some practices that aid in creating new habit pathways faster:

  • Change initiatives fail when there is no clarity around why they were introduced, their goals, or the roles of managers in facilitating/ introducing them. This causes the exact threat our brain resists and increases anxiety. Address it by designing specific and measurable goals. Companies that review goals often, and have employees create their goals, are about three times more likely to be successful in managing change! 
  • The process of learning during change needs to be continuous. The brain often needs time to process new information, as much of it is forgotten soon after it is received. When information is reviewed a couple of days after, retention is much higher. And, this, when followed by evaluation of the change, or assessment of its impact, helps with better adaptability.
  • Like in the bike example above, change requires consistent attention. Some theories state that it takes a month to form a new habit, but there is no research evidence to support it. The suggestion here: break organizational change into smaller units, and introduce them step by step. This helps our brains form new habits quickly.

For example: if you want employees to generate status reports six times a month, don’t expect them to do so immediately. Start with a lower frequency and then scale up – like twice a month for two months, four for the next two, and six after that.

  • Communication. During change, employees want to feel that they have a voice, and that it is being heard. Allow them to complain, share opinions, and be a part of the change as much as possible, for it to be successful. Show empathy during a stressful time and connect to people on an emotional level.

Change is never easy. But successful, lasting change needs to cater to the personality of our brain. And most of the times, our brain does not work as quickly as we want it to!

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