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What neuroscience has to say about organizational change

Many organizations that used to be very strong and successful seem to be failing without any chance of recovery. I have personally suffered through the demise of three companies that produced my favorite mobile phones. I’m actually starting to wonder if the actual problem is not the business plan but me preferring the handsets. Perhaps I should warn my current mobile phone manufacturer of my potential as a jinx.

Joke aside, things do not look so well for a lot of businesses. Globalization, increased competition, rapid technological changes, financial uncertainty, political unrest, changing workforce demographics, and many other constantly evolving factors are forcing organizations to change faster and differently than ever before. To make things worse, all the efforts made in the field of organizational change appear to be more or less in vain.

Read more: Why can’t organizations learn and innovate fast enough?

As organizational behavioral experts Kenneth Thompson and Fred Luthans noted almost 20 years ago, a person’s reaction to organizational change “can be so excessive and immediate, that some researchers have suggested it may be easier to start a completely new organization than to try to change an existing one.”

In layman’s terms, this is called resistance to change and it is probably the biggest organizational challenge of the day. Overcoming it may mean tapping into the realm of neuroscience.

Read more: Why you should consider neuroscience when creating e-learning courses

What does neuroscience do for organizational change?

There are several answers to this questions. First of all, it makes it all a lot smoother and gives it a greater chance of success. Applying the findings of neuroscience helps get the employee performance and the results that are so necessary to business success.

But it also helps people deal with change, gives managers and team leaders the proper tools and information to deal with the complicated dynamics and responses to it. Change initiatives tend to bring out the worst in people and eventually fall short because of the failure to understand one critical point: each individual has a unique brain architecture.

Read more: The learning brain and why L&D professionals should care about it

Even though we all share the same neurological wiring, our view of the world and our experience of it are rooted in our genetics, previous experiences, points-of-view, religious and cultural beliefs and many more aspects. Neuroscience helps us understand these differences and find the common denominators as well as the individual triggers that will ensure a transition as smooth as it can be.

It’s a known fact that a distressing mental state appears when people find that their actions come in contrast with their beliefs, something psychologists call cognitive dissonance. The implication this scientific truth has for organizations is that if people believe in the overall purpose of change and it matches their own life purposes, behaviors will change.

What is a good change project made of?

Important transformations do not just happen overnight. Anyone who is put in charge of developing a major change program must take the time to think thoroughly about it. It needs a clear structure, a more or less flexible timeline and it needs a story. This is important to people because it explains why it is worth undertaking and what the end result will be for everyone involved.

Organizational designers know that everything from reporting structures, management and operational processes to measurement procedures-setting targets, measuring performance and rewards must be consistent with the behavior that people are asked to have. When a company asks for a significant change in behavior but does not back this up with reminders and rewards employees will be equally inconsistent in adopting it.

If, for example, most efforts are put towards coaching new hires, experienced members of the organization are less likely to accept and make the change happen. Neuroscience shows that people are central to the transformational process and if the focus is on procedures instead of the human component it is very likely to fail – you don’t get a new room simply by rearranging the chairs around the table.

Researchers Thomas and Vincent Wright in their article published in the Academy of Management Journal, argue that the reason for the apparent lack of relevance and negative focus on the workplace has been the failure of much organizational research so far to focus on anything other than cost-benefit analysis or efficiency, represented mainly by the committed-to-management (CMR) perspective. This has emphasized focus on shareholder value as the most important measure of organizational performance.

All in all

Applying the findings of neuroscience when setting about to bring organizational change places the focus on the individuals without losing sight of the desired business results. It’s safe to say that this approach brings a much needed change in change management. For a comprehensive look at how to do it, Hillary Scarlett has all the answers in her book on the matter.

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