Steps to Brain-Friendlier Change

By Erika Garms, Ph.D.
CEO, WorkingSmarts

In the brain, change is associated with error detection, threats, and fear. In fact, merely receiving advice or information can be registered in the brain as change and elicits the same threat response neurologically. Neuroscience research clearly shows that threat response sharply reduces use of the prefrontal cortex where higher-order thinking occurs. This is why change is so difficult at work, having a poor success rate of 66 percent, a number that hasn’t budged in decade—until now.

Slowing Down the Tornado
In the midst of any major workplace change, we can feel as though we’re in a dizzying swirl of challenges, new terminology, and learning—and mourning for what we’re leaving behind. Slowing down this tornado can help us make sense of what we’re seeing during times of transition, and this in turn lowers our stress and shifts us from a reactive to a more productive mindset.

Three Lenses: Individual, Group, Organization
Organizations are groups, yes, but remember that they are groups of individuals and that change makes progress one individual at a time. Understanding how individuals interpret the purpose, messages, and impacts of a change is key to building momentum for a transition. It is critical to remember this. Addressing concerns of a group means addressing concerns of many individuals. Glossing over this distinction is a surefire way to create cynicism and distrust.

What’s Happening at the Individual Level?

A few brain-friendly tips to keep in mind about how any change fundamentally impacts each employee:

1) We can’t help but interpret change as threatening. This comes from our biological need, first and foremost, to guard our safety.

2) Language has a tremendous and deep impact on our response to change; words shape our thoughts and emotions even faster than we are aware.
3) Language has a tremendous and deep impact on our response to change; words shape our thoughts and emotions even faster than we are aware.

4) So, we must get our words right before they get out in front of us. It’s worth choosing a few key phrases to avoid getting caught searching for words or blurting out something that may be misunderstood.

5) Clarify what is not changing, the exciting opportunities, the possible upsides. Ruminating only on the negatives is a self-reinforcing spiral downward. Make positive thought a habit.

Naming something challenging helps us gain better control over it; labeling, as opposed to fretting, activates a different part of the brain. Encourage yourself or others to be specific—not vague—about what they’re feeling and thinking.

Typically, in an organization, individuals will work together in some configuration: teams, divisions, departments, units, or similar. Once these groupings form they take on a mind of their own, and then a subculture can form within the group. So already it can be tempting at this level for the leader to start delivering change messages, addressing change-related concerns rather than at the individual level. What’s better? Do both. Speak to the group and to the individuals.

What’s Happening at the Group Level?

1)  The group will immediately want to know how its work and processes will be impacted and may need to feel it has input into the transition.

2)  Group norms and power structure may be shifting; this can be hugely disruptive.

3)  Groups under stress (in transition) can lean on their dark sides, not using their best skills or best thinking. Groupthink is a real phenomenon in which viewpoints of a group merge together. Generally, this isn’t healthy and it limits creative solution building.

4)  To avoid negative groupthink, start gently using this phrase often: “Interesting. What makes you think so?”

5)  Divisions between organizational layers and units will seem exaggerated, so everything that can be done to emphasize open lines of communication will be helpful.

6)  Everything said earlier about individuals is also true and important.

What’s Happening at the Organizational Level?

What makes or breaks an organization-wide change can be found before staff even detects the change. It’s in the planning and the crafting of communication. It’s in the involvement of staff at the various levels. And it’s in the timing and sequencing of messages and activities. All of these can quickly turn employees into naysayers or supporters. Keep the following five tips at the forefront:

1)  Craft key messages about what the change is and why it’s happening. Use these statements often and consistently. If you don’t, people will invent their own, and this is where suspicion and fear set in.

2)  In describing why the change, carefully choose words that frame the goal as an opportunity toward which your institution is reaching. Running from the threat is a bad way to start because staff will translate it to their own personal situations and will not think effectively past it.

3)  Identify early on where and how there will be opportunities for input. Use it. Let staff see their input being used.

4)  Mark milestones along the transition process and, using leaders, celebrate them. Be specific each time about what is being celebrated.

5)  Again using leaders, highlight the learnings throughout the process. Highlighting both learnings that led to successes, as well as those that may have been deemed mistakes, builds a healthy culture.

Moving Forward

Using these three lenses may help clarify future transitions. Use brain-friendly change techniques for yourself, for groups, or to address organization-wide challenges. These techniques can bolster success in uncommon and significant ways.

Even More Brain-Friendly Change Tips

1)  Remember that personal reputations are at stake in the midst of organizational change. Status is important to our brains, and not knowing the new pecking order is anxiety-producing. Clarify when possible.

2)  The most common unmet need in times of change is certainty. Lack of information triggers threat. Share as much information as possible, even when the only information is that more answers are being sought.

3)  A perceived helplessness is often associated with change. Helplessness causes emotional responses such as depression and apathy. Encourage others about their own autonomy and focus on where it exists rather than where it may not.

4)  Those enduring change need to continue feeling as though they are part of a comfortable group. Look for opportunities to reinforce pre-existing group relationships.

5)  Employees need to believe that there is equity in the change decision-making. Emphasize the basis on which decisions were made, to assure others of fair proceedings.

6)  Give people room to breathe. Give your colleagues the space they need for their own self-care and peace of mind. Also, allow others to change. This is tough. As we grow with our organizations, sometimes it’s our peers who inadvertently hold us back—with their expectations that we will continue to be the people we’ve always been. Let us, instead, let go of our assumptions about each other. Give colleagues room to grow and even to surprise us!

Erika Garms, Ph.D., is a cross-industry consultant who helps leaders and teams work, manage and innovate more effectively. As CEO of WorkingSmarts (, she uses her talent for translating powerful scientific theory to everyday workplace practice. She is a professional speaker and facilitator, and author of The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas from Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges and the forthcoming ManagementSmarts. Email: