Change is constant and inevitable, or so we are told. Yet we resist it, especially when the change happens to us, like at work. So in the uncertain climate of organizations today, it becomes more vital that we understand how to assist people and prevent change fatigue from setting in.
As a coach working increasingly with moving roles and restructured landscapes, cognitive and social neuroscience research has enhanced my (and my coachees’) understanding of responses to change.
Although our brain is built to relentlessly scan our environments for what has changed and then assess this in terms of the danger or delight—will it eat me, or will I eat it?—our brain is more likely to register danger. In other words, we are genetically programmed to avoid change. Research into brain plasticity over the past 10 years has, however, emphasized its capacity for change. In fact, our brains are designed to continually learn, change and adapt.
Scientists once believed the brain was ‘hardwired’ early in life. We now know that the 80-yearold brain has the same ability to make new connections as the eight-year-old brain. Unfortunately, most people stop challenging themselves to learn new things around the age of 30, and when we don’t use it, we lose it!
Working with and adapting to change is one effect of plasticity and how we grow. Working with change responses from a coaching approach that models understandings from neuroscience assists change managers and change participants in many ways. Here are just three:
Deactivate fear circuitry
Coaches can explore with coachees their view of the change. Talking through an individual’s responses to change reduces the activation of their brain’s fear circuitry. This is important because arousing the fear circuitry overloads our prefrontal cortex, reducing function and decision making. Even mild levels of uncertainty, like gossip or rumors with no evidence, can stimulate fear. We expect the worst, and unless these expectations are understood, underperformance and decreased productivity will set in.
It is the uncertainty itself—not the potential outcome—that generates change in neurotransmitter levels that inhibit thinking. Coaching assists by encouraging expression of concerns and uncertainty. It is a space to acknowledge the coachee’s viewpoint without forcing the change agenda, and it is the process of the coaching conversation itself that reduces the physiological effects of stress, and when this occurs people often move themselves forward. An effective coach sees this nonverbally often before it is spoken, and can gently guide the person towards acceptance.
What is missing from many organizational change processes is quantity and quality time to focus on the development of new skills and behaviors as well as people’s ability to do this. Studies on neuroplasticity show that with focused attention new (physical) neural connections are made and stabilized so that people experience the change as ‘normal or automatic.’ Mindfulness is the key to this.
Unless we can mindfully focus our attention, stabilization of new neural connections cannot occur and people revert to old behaviors. This is amplified by research about our set point in terms of reactions to change as being tipped more toward negative emotions (irritability, frustration, etc).
The good news is that this set point can be moved toward more constructive emotions by coaching for mindfulness.
Build a ‘possibility focus’
What we focus on grows. A focus on problems grows problems. A focus on strengths and possibilities grows neural connections of possibility and strength. A coach is a champion of both the coachee and neural plasticity.
In addition, while our brains chatter along with thousands of unconscious thoughts every day, we do have a small window (seconds) to make conscious choices between automatic reaction and conscious response. The more the focus is on possibility, the more likely we are to make choices that fit these possibilities and strengths. This brings ownership of the change.
So get a coach, or include a coaching approach in your change processes. Then whether you are in a good or bad situation, the change won’t matter.
This is a slightly amended version of an article written by Dr. Hilary Armstrong, director of education for the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership. It has been shortened to make it suitable for web publishing.
“If you’re in a bad situation, don’t worry, it’ll change. If you’re in a good situation, don’t worry, it’ll change.” — John A Simone, Sr.