Most of our daily activities including many of our work habits are controlled by a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. These habitual repetitive tasks take much less mental energy to perform because they become hard wired and we no longer have to give them much conscious thought. So it’s no wonder that the way we’ve always done it not only feels right, it feels good.
Change jerks us out of this comfort zone by stimulating the prefrontal cortex, a section of the brain responsible for insight and impulse control. But the prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to the amygdala and that’s the brain’s fear circuitry, which in turn controls our freeze, fight or flight response. And when the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed with complex and unfamiliar concepts, the amygdala connection gets knocked into high gear. The result is all those negative feelings of anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, fatigue or anger that change leaders observe in their teams (and often in themselves).
But if science helps explain our negative reaction to change, it also offers insights for helping people deal with change:
Make the change familiar.
If you show people two pictures of themselves, one an accurate representation and the other a reverse image, people will prefer the second because that’s the image they see in the mirror every day. It takes a lot of repetition to move a new or complex concept from the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia. Continually talking about change, focusing on key aspects will eventually allow the novel to become more familiar and less threatening.
Let people create change.
No one likes change that’s forced on them; and yet, most people respond favorably to change they create and brain research shows why this is so. At the moment when someone chooses to change, their brain scan shows a tremendous amount of activity as insight develops, and the brain begins building new and complex connections. When people solve a problem by themselves, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline and this natural high becomes associated positively with the change experience.