If you’ve been through any major organisational change, you’ll know that people can often behave erratically.
Hilary Scarlett’s comprehensive introduction to how our brains work (and why we should care) helps explain why. In neuroscience terms, she says, an organisation going through major change is like an organisation being run by a group of teenagers. The reason? Change activates the threat response, and the adult brain in a threat response is much like that of a teenager: quick to get angry and emotional, and hard to reason with…
In the last 20 years, research into how our brains work has exploded, offering intriguing insight into people’s responses to change. Neuroscience for Organizational Change may sound like heavy reading, but that’s far from the truth. It’s entertaining, impressively researched, and highly practical.
How our brains work
The first section covers how our grey matter works. Our brains, we learn, are all about survival. To survive, they need to do two things: avoid threats, and seek out rewards. Unfortunately, the threat response is stronger. And that makes organisational change challenging.
It also looks at why our brains don’t like change. They’re prediction machines, and like certainty. A lack of certainty can send us into a threat response. Research shows that uncertainty about the nature of a negative event is far more stressful than certainty. That’s why it’s usually better to communicate as much as possible, even when there’s not much to say.
Taking practical action
Section two covers practical steps organisations and individuals can take to keep our brains happy and productive.
Social connection is one example. Often managers know little about the changes ahead, so they create distance with their teams because they have no answers to give them. But that’s a mistake.
Hilary argues that we’ve “hugely underestimated our need for social connection at work” – a need that increases during change. Regardless of what they know, managers should focus on building their relationships with their teams during periods of uncertainty.
It also covers social rejection, caused by the often unwitting creation of ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’. Being in an outgroup is not fun. The pain of rejection is felt in the same part of the brain as physical pain, and it can hugely reduce your performance. It made me reflect on when I’ve felt part of ingroups and outgroups, and the impact it had not only on me, but likely on others too.
One of the most useful features is the chapter summaries, which highlight key points and give practical recommendations, along with a handful of searching questions to ask of your own organisation. Hilary and her colleagues have run neuroscience workshops with leaders, and you can find the results here too.
I would have liked more expansion on the benefits of allowing people to reach their own insights when it comes to change, but it’s a minor complaint. If you’re involved in organisational change, or communicating it, then this book should increase your chances of success.