The Neuroscience Of Change

We wrapped up day 2 of Gartner BPM 2013 with David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, on neuroleadership and the neuroscience behind organizational change. Neuroleadership deals with how leaders make decisions and solve problems, regulate emotions, collaborate, and facilitate change; this last one is of key focus in his presentation today. In order to create change effectively using a brain-based model, we need to create a “toward” state, facilitate new connections, and embed new habits. Basically, our brains are really bad at doing things that we’ve never done before, because that requires using the relatively small prefrontal cortex. In other words, if we have to think about something, it’s hard. Furthermore, if you’re threatened or stressed, the capability of the prefrontal cortex decreases, meaning that you’re only going to be able to do simple tasks that you’ve done before.

He outlined three levels of thinking: level 1 tasks are simplistic things that you’ve seen/done a lot before, such as deleting emails; level 2 tasks are things that you’ve seen less often, such as scheduling meetings; and level 3 are more complex concepts that you’ve never seen before, such as writing a business plan. When you’re really stressed, you’re pretty much only good for doing level 1 tasks, although peak performance does happen when you’re under a bit of stress.

Change requires a lot of cognitive processing, but when change is perceived as a threat, cognitive processing function decreases. Having change not be perceived as a threat requires creating a toward state, that is, something that is rewarding; since our brains are deeply social, to the point where social pain is the same as physical pain within the brain, social rewards can be used to create that toward state. The five domains of social pain/pleasure are status (your perception of your position relative to others), certainty (uncertainty arouses the limbic system), autonomy (the brain likes to predict and have a say in the future, and having some degree of choice can reduce stress levels), relatedness (categorizations of similar/different to decide who’s on your team and shares your goals), and fairness (unfairness is the same as pain, to the brain). Having higher levels of these social rewards reduces stress, and we protect against the threat of them decreasing. Change, however, can create threats in all of these domains, and you need to find offsetting rewards in one or more of these domains in order to get people thinking about the future rather than just mentally cowering in a corner.

Once a toward state is created by addressing the social reward domains, you can facilitate new connections in people’s brains by creating an environment that permits them to have insights, which starts to form those new pathways that lead to habits.

Thought-provoking talk about the neurological motivations behind change, and a good way to end the day.

Tonight, I’m off to a TIBCO customer event — as a matter of disclosure, TIBCO provided me with one of their conference passes to be here, although I paid my own travel expenses — and I’ll only have time for one or two sessions in the morning before I head for the airport.

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