What the brain tells us about the art and science of change and leadership

Illustration of the thought processes in the brain

Change and leadership are inextricably linked. Often leaders are brought in to introduce change, and always change requires great leadership if it is to be successful.

Lots of time and money is spent on change efforts, and we know that often these efforts don’t reap the investment in them.

So, if we knew WHAT made change successful and how that linked to leadership, that would make a whole lot about organisational life a lot easier.

What we now know about the brain

The good news is that with the rapid advances in neuroscience, we are finding out more and more about the brain every day. And the implications for leadership and change are astonishing.

It’s now well known that the brain is much more malleable than we used to think. Whereas the prevailing wisdom used to be that your brain was fairly much set once you hit your mid 20s (or so), we now know about neuroplasticity of the brain and that it can be changed. What wonderful news for us all.

The link between the brain and change and leadership

There is an increasing body of work that also links the brain (the physical organ) with the mind (the human consciousness that perceives, thinks, acts and feels).  This research also helps to show why the many change efforts have failed.

Research from Rock and Schwartz states the following:

“Managers who understand the recent breakthroughs in cognitive science can lead and influence mindful change: organisational transformation that takes into account the physiological nature of the brain, and the ways in which it predisposes people to resist some forms of leadership and accept others.”

Rock and Schwartz go on to say we now know more about what works and what doesn’t from a neuroscience perspective.

Change is pain

We all know the sayings “change is hard” or “change won’t happen until the pain of the old is more than the pain of the new” ..

Well – it turns out that it IS actually hard; change (including organisational change) IS difficult because it causes physiological discomfort in the brain.  

It goes some way to explaining why people avoid or resist change even when it they know it is in their own interest.

Focus is power

This is where it starts to get really amazing.

We now know that the brain changes as a function of where an individual puts his or her focus.

Expectation shapes reality

People’s preconceptions have a significant impact on what they perceive. By allowing them to have an “ah ah” moment for themselves, and change their own mental models; then change does become possible.

Attention density shapes identity

Rock and Schwartz say that repeated, purposeful and focussed attention can lead to long-lasting personal evolution (hello mindfulness!)

Behaviorism doesn’t work

That is, that there is one set of incentives that motivates each person. Find the right incentives, and you’ll find the motivation for change.

Rock and Schwartz say that there is plenty of evidence now to show that the carrots and stick approach motivation and change just doesn’t work.

Humanism is overrated

This approach allow for a person focussed approach to change. Which the authors say may well work, except that the reality of change in the workplace is that there is rarely the time or resources to go through this approach with each employee and no guarantee that it will work.

Making it happen

Is the answer to all the challenges of change just to focus people on solutions instead of problems, let them come to their own answers and keep them focussed on their insights? Apparently, this is what the brain wants.

Rock and Schwartz cite examples of spectacularly successful change that has worked using these principles.

So, where does this leave us? Firstly – understanding that the advances in neuroscience and neuroleadership have huge implications for the way that we lead and manage change.

We now know that some of the age old ways that we’ve been doing things, just don’t work. Actually – we always should have known that – because they didn’t work.

Good leadership is now about understanding the link between the brain and the mind, and using that knowledge to implement change in an effective way.

More to come on this one for sure!

Until next week, happy leading.


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