Organizational Change and the Human Brain


Change in organizations is pretty much a constant in today’s business environment. Globalization, changing market dynamics, evolving technology, and a myriad of other factors create the need for change, and human emotions – more precisely, the response of human brains – create many of the barriers to successful change implementation.

In my work with workshop participants and coaching/consulting engagements, I see both change done well and change gone awry. When it goes well, leaders have done the preparatory and communication work necessary to successfully navigate the dangerous emotional territory created by change. When it does not go well, it is generally because leaders have not fully appreciated or planned for the emotional context in which they are working.

Here are three articles I have used to help me to develop better understanding and insight into the human component of “change management.”

This article, contains some good tips for thinking about, planning for, and implementing a change.

Checklist for Brain-Friendly Change Management

More than twenty years ago, organisational behavioral experts Kenneth Thompson and Fred Luthans noted that a person’s reaction to organisational 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.” This ”human resistance to change,” is one of the most important issues facing the field of organisational change.

I see this article as primarily an promotional article about an event where the topics of change and change management will be discussed at greater length, and still, it offers some good insights into what leaders should consider as they think about organizational change.

This is Your Brain on Organizational Change – Walter McFarland

For many years, the training field has viewed organizational change as a process that is both linear and sequential. Instead, change has revealed itself to be non-linear and chaotic. It’s time to find a new model — one that incorporates insights from neuroscience research and takes into account 21st century workplace dynamics and realities.

And finally, the article that is my favorite in this particular list. This article provides deeper insights into how our brains respond to social dynamics caused by organizational change. I see the concepts in this article as foundational for wise leaders who want to learn how to successfully drive change through their teams.

Managing with the Brain in Mind

Although a job is often regarded as a purely economic transaction, in which people exchange their labor for financial compensation, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system. Like the experiment participants whose avatars were left out of the game, people who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work — for example, when they are reprimanded, given an assignment that seems unworthy, or told to take a pay cut — experience it as a neural impulse, as powerful and painful as a blow to the head. Most people who work in companies learn to rationalize or temper their reactions; they “suck it up,” as the common parlance puts it. But they also limit their commitment and engagement. They become purely transactional employees, reluctant to give more of themselves to the company, because the social context stands in their way.

If you know of other good resources, please leave a comment below with your suggestions.

photo credit: perpetualplum via photopin cc