10 change-leadership tips backed by science

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Simplify your communication.

The prefrontal cortex can only deal well with a few concepts at a time. As tempting as it may be to lump everything you know about the change into one comprehensive chunk, don’t do it. Your job is to help people make sense of complexity by condensing it into two or three critical goals that they can understand and absorb.

Don’t sugarcoat the truth.

The prefrontal cortex is always on guard for signals of danger. When overly optimistic outcomes or unrealistic expectations are exposed (and by the way, they always are) the prefrontal cortex switches to high alert looking for other signs of deception and triggering the primitive brain to respond with feelings of heightened anxiety.

Help people pay attention.

The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain. In fact, attention is what is continually reshaping brain patterns. The term attention density refers to the amount of attention paid to a particular mental experience over a specific time. The greater concentration on a specific idea, the higher the attention density. High attention density facilitates long-term behavioral change. Now, one way to encourage people to pay attention is to package new ideas in continually different ways, attention-grabbing ways. A story, a game, an experience, a humorous skit, a metaphor, an image or even a song.

Don’t underestimate the power of emotion.

According to the neurologist and author Antonio Damasio, the center of our conscious thought (the prefrontal cortex) is so tightly connected to the emotion-generating amygdala, that no one makes decisions based on pure logic. Damasio’s research makes it clear that mental processes were not conscious of drive our decision making, and logical reasoning is really no more than a way to justify emotional choices. When leaders announce change, therefore, they need to go beyond logic and facts and include an appeal to the audience’s emotions.

In addition, remember that emotions are infectious.

Like the common cold, emotions are literally contagious. You can “catch” an emotion just by being in the same room with someone. And since emotional leads tend to flow from the most powerful person in a group to the others, when the leader is angry or depressed, negativity can spread like a virus to the rest of the team, affecting attitudes and lowering energy. Conversely, upbeat and optimistic leaders are likely to make the entire team feel energized.

Watch your body language.

When your body language doesn’t match your words, your verbal message is lost. Neuroscientists at Colgate University study the effects of gestures by using an electroencephalograph (EEG) machines to measure “event-related potentials” – brain waves that form peaks and valleys. One of these valleys, dubbed N400, occurs when subjects are shown gestures that contradict what’s spoken. This is the same brain wave dip that occurs when people listen to nonsensical language. So if you state that you are open to suggestions about implementing change, but as you talk about “openness,” you cross your arms in a “closed” gesture — you literally don’t make sense. And if forced to choose, people will believe what they see and not what you say.

Give people a stabilizing foundation.

In a constantly changing organization, where instability must be embraced as inevitable, a sense of stability can still be maintained. The leader’s role here is to create stability through honoring the organization’s history, detailing current successes and challenges, and creating a powerful vision for the future. And, by using the term “vision,” I’m not referring to a corporate statement punctuated by bullet points. I’m talking about a clearly articulated, emotionally charged, and encompassing picture of what the organization is trying to achieve.

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