Why change can be hard - our brains and change

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Written by Clare Edwards on 2 February 2017

If you’re as old as I am you might remember the halcyon days where change was dealt with in neat, linear projects. It was planned, implemented, embedded, reviewed and refined, then on to the next project. We can drop the nostalgia now we are having to deal with added complexity, emerging disrupters, rapid technology advancements and uncertainty pervading our every decision.

Change is hard – for our brains. Let’s look at how our brains deal with change to gain a deeper insight into why some people would rather have a root canal treatment without anaesthetic than go through ‘yet another’ change initiative at work.

1. We are programmed to be wary of change

If you imagine the existence of the earth as a clock with the first seconds being around 4.6 billion years ago, human beings appeared somewhere between 11.58 and 11.59 pm so to all intents and purposes we are still young and evolving, especially our brains.

Life was fairly simple 200,000 years ago. We were out either looking for lunch or being lunch! The number one goal in life was survival. It didn’t serve us to be admiring a spectacular sunset or pretty flower, distraction cost us our life.

As such our brains developed with one purpose in mind – to keep us safe. We learnt to scan our environment five times more for threat and danger than for pleasure or reward and this is still the case today1. This is further supported by neuroscientist Evian Gordon who states that ‘The key organising principle of the brain is to keep us safe’2

What this means for many staff in change situations is that change equals threat. Our brains crave certainty and predictability, two conditions that change doesn’t offer. We are conditioned to move away from threat and when faced with it we display negative emotions of the change curve such as anger, denial and fear.

2. Habits are stronger than willpower

We habituate our roles at work because this is how the brain conserves energy. Learning something new and changing the status quo can be exhausting for the CEO of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, so instead the basal ganglia, the habit centre, becomes the superhero – fast and efficient. It’s so much easier to return to the status quo than continually making the effort to do something differently.

If you are one of the few who craves change at work think about it in the context of changing your diet, exercise regime or achieving a regular work/life balance – it’s not always so easy.

What this means for change initiatives is that managers often mistake habit and fear for resistance and deal with it accordingly which puts people further into a state of threat and exacerbates the situation.

3. We calculate risk versus reward

When we face a change, our brains automatically calculate the reward and the risk involved in order to determine whether it’s worth doing or not. As we weigh risk and reward, whichever comes out strongest will influence the degree of action we take; if we perceive the reward to be less than that of the risk, we are unlikely to engage in the change.

What this means for change initiatives is that a focus on communicating the negative consequences of not changing, aka ‘the Burning Platform’, will be perceived as risky and continue to create a threat situation for those on the receiving end.

Strategies for minimising threat and increasing certainty in change

1. Acknowledge that change is hard – build empathy with your people and let them know that you are aware of how they might be feeling and you are also there to support them. Likelihood is that by the time you come to communicate details of the change you have already come through the other end of the change curve – think back to the first time you heard about it and step into their shoes.

2. Create certainty by focusing on the ‘not change’ – when faced with uncertainty we go into stress mode and in stress mode we tend to exaggerate and catastrophise. We can help our people by eliciting from them (not telling them) that which is still going to stay the same. Once people identify all the ‘not changes’ you can see them calming down as their brain gains perspective moving away from emotional and survival to rational and balanced.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate – our brains are prediction machines and with half a story to hand they will want to close the loop – this is how rumours start. I was a senior manager during the 2001 internet boom and bust and we held daily conference calls with the whole company – even if there was no news. We held daily Q&A’s where no question was off limits and we did whatever we could to support our staff – they also needed to stay productive.

In summary, according to McKinsey & Company, the failure rate of change initiatives today has not changed since the work of John Kotter in 1985 – it’s still 70 – 80 per cent. When we take the brain into account, aim to reduce threat and uncertainty and by hyper-communicating we are giving ourselves and others the opportunity to create a greater chance of success.

It’s time to make the soft stuff hard.


About the author

Clare Edwards is director of BrainSmart and you can contact her at clare@brain-smart.com.



1 Bad is Stronger than Good (2001). Roy F. Baumeister and Ellen Bratslavsky Case Western Reserve University

2 Evian Gordon (2000). Integrative neuroscience: Bringing together biological, psychological and clinical models of the human brain.


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