Using Neuroscience to Get Your Change Effort off the Ground

People and Change

Organizational change has a reputation for being painful and often unsuccessful.  However, it doesn't have to be that way.  Structuring your change efforts using what we know about how people actually think will make change easier and adoption more likely.  When you do so, your change plan will probably look different and work better. 

Brain Science? Really?

By now you know that change is one of the few unchanging aspects of your job and that the pace of that change is probably going to accelerate.  There are even acronyms and frameworks to describe this environment of constant and escalating change:

  • The emergence of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity (VUCA)1 as an acronym to describe the current environment of change
  • The now-decades-old Moore’s Law which suggests that the capabilities of our technology hardware will continue to evolve at accelerating rates, with all the associated consequences
  • The application of complexity theory to organizations as complex adaptive systems, both dynamic and chaotic

We need a better toolset for handling change.  For business leaders, neuroscience can seem like scary and unfamiliar territory that is both experimental and a long way from the day-to-day challenges of running a business.  But we now have close to 20 years of science about how the brain reacts to various kinds of stimuli and lots of findings that are directly applicable to understanding how people think about, experience and react to change. 

Consider the following questions:

  • How can I effectively focus my team on our new goals, knowing that those goals are themselves subject to change?
  • What will help my team effectively transition themselves to the new reality?

To answer these questions we need first to explore a few key ideas to set our teams up for successful change.

Being Intentional About Attention

As a business leader, you know all about managing scarce resources. Research unequivocally shows that in the brain, attention is an exceptionally scarce thinking resource especially in the face of tasks that require cognitively complex processing, as many corporate change initiatives do.2  In some ways, we all suffer from “attention deficiencies.” The current pace of change and the availability of information threatens to outstrip our ability to keep up. 

Managing change effectively requires that we actively acknowledge this scarcity and manage it as carefully as we manage our budgets.  There are great lessons here for change managers, inviting us to consider options we might not normally have considered, including finding a way to make change happen without attracting attention at all. 

The nature of your change should dictate the amount of attention it gets in your organization.

Attention and Change


Engaging Positive Emotions

While business doesn’t historically acknowledge a role for emotions, neuroscience studies are confirming that as we engage people’s attention (even subconsciously), we will probably engage emotions, lighting up the limbic brain.3  Although we often separate “thinking” from “feeling” linguistically, in reality both are happening in the brain at all times.  Research has shown that we tap into our emotional brains when we store memories, make decisions and engage our creativity4. This means our limbic brain is an important factor in getting to people’s best thinking and their best performance.  Simon Cooper, former President and CEO of Ritz-Carlton said, “When it comes to customers, feelings are facts.”  If we substitute the word ‘change’ for the word ‘customers’ his statement would still be equally true.  The neuroscience tells us our default setting is to look for threats or risks.  In fact, our brain scans the environment five times every second looking for risk.5  But it also tells us that emotions can be forces for good rather than evil, even in the workplace, and that great performance comes from people who are deeply and intrinsically motivated.  In the brain, those people literally experience at least some aspects of their work as a reward, lighting up the same brain centers as pleasure.  Fully engaging the enormous power of the brain means tapping into emotions – intentionally and positively. 

Engaging Emotion:  How Leadership Choices Drive a Spectrum of Responses

One company who was facing major role changes for the highly-educated workforce in its core line of business had the following options for managing the process of assigning its people to new roles. 


The company chose the “positive” option and, by combining transparency and personal choice, leadership helped minimize the threat of this potentially very destabilizing company-wide transition.  Employees expressed positive feedback for the level of effort, input and care put into this process.

Unlocking Insight Through Experience: “Insight-ing” Curiosity

The traditional change management approach focuses on giving people information.  Information is certainly necessary for change to happen but it is simply not sufficient.  Even information about personal benefits (affectionately known as the “WIIFM,” or “what’s in it for me?”) has been shown to be less than effective in driving actual changes in behavior.  So what’s a business leader to do? Traditionally, we have asked leaders to forge a path to the change, and hope that people will follow great leaders.  In the best of cases they do, but this leaves a whole lot of responsibility on your shoulders as a leader. 

The neuroscience research suggests that people are fully capable of motivating and driving their own change, and that meaningful change doesn’t happen until this occurs.6  The activation energy for this kind of change is rarely external, instead it must be an internal insight generated by and for each individual on their own terms.  Insights originate from unlocking the power of our subconscious and that means they are completely unique to the individual.  Your change is not my change is not your boss’ change. 

So how can you help hundreds or thousands of people experience that kind of insight?  Let’s start by changing our image of leadership.  Instead of forging a path to change, we suggest you engage the team early on to launch a journey of discovery in which you will participate with them.  In the brain, insight arises through the discovery process and discovery happens through experience.  Focus your change efforts on designing experiences that spark curiosity and enable discovery to allow people to generate their own insights.  To help them do so, engage curiosity and allow for customized exploration as early in the process as possible while the design is still flexible.  Take the change to them, let them live inside it for at least a few minutes, ask and answer their own questions and build at least an initial set of connections to the new reality. 

One company we worked with used appreciative inquiry techniques in their initial rollout of new cultural norms.  Open discussions about positive experiences with the key behaviors helped employees notice what was working and reinforced their expectations of success.  Not only did this activity engage positive emotions, but it also offered people a chance to discover on their own and produce their own insight, releasing a wash of positive brain chemicals that are experienced as a rush of energy and excitement.  Discovery literally makes the brain light up.  Is it any wonder that our metaphor for a great idea is a light bulb?

Next Steps

So how can you effectively focus your team on a new set of goals, knowing that those goals are themselves subject to change, and what will help them effectively transition themselves to the new reality?

The journey to a successful change begins with these three steps:

  1. Focus attention on the few most important changes
  2. Engage positive emotion
  3. Support the discovery of personal insights

Of course the journey does not end here.  For many changes, we will still need to undertake the pick and shovel work of skill acquisition and habit formation.  But for now, we have leveraged neuroscience and the power of the brain to launch us on a positive path, a path that is much more likely to result in successful transition or adoption of the change itself.

For more information, please contact:

Andrea Barrett
+1 404.975.6510
Andrea.Barrett@northhighland.com



[1] VUCA:  Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity, Stiehm, Judith Hicks and Nicholas W. Townsend (2002). The U.S. Army War College: Military Education in a Democracy. Temple University Press. p. 6. ISBN 1-56639-960-2.

[2] Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2001 Chapter 2, pages 34-35 and http://www.fnal.gov/pub/traffic_safety/files/NSC%20White%20Paper%20-%20Distracted%20Driving%203-10.pdf

[3] Naccache, L., Gaillard, R.L., Adam, C., Hasboun, D., Clemenceau, S., Baulac, M., Dehaene, S., & Cohen, L. (2005). A direct intracranial record of emotions evoked by subliminal words. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 102, 7713-7717.

[4] James L. McGaugh, Memory and Emotion:  The Making of Lasting Memories (New York, Columbia University Press, 2003)  And for a more recent update with numerous additional research links see McGaugh’s 2013 paper:  Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jun 18; 110(Suppl 2): 10402–10407. Published online 2013 Jun 10. doi:  10.1073/pnas.1301209110 PMCID: PMC3690616 Neuroscience  Making lasting memories: Remembering the significant James L. McGaugh.

[6] Gordon, E. et al. (2008), An “Integrative Neuroscience” platform: application to profiles of negativity and positivity bias, Journal of Integrative Neuroscience.


Using Neuroscience to Get Your Change Effort off the Ground

People and Change

Organizational change has a reputation for being painful and often unsuccessful.  However, it doesn't have to be that way.  Structuring your change efforts using what we know about how people actually think will make change easier and adoption more likely.  When you do so, your change plan will probably look different and work better. 

Brain Science? Really?

By now you know that change is one of the few unchanging aspects of your job and that the pace of that change is probably going to accelerate.  There are even acronyms and frameworks to describe this environment of constant and escalating change:

  • The emergence of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity (VUCA)1 as an acronym to describe the current environment of change
  • The now-decades-old Moore’s Law which suggests that the capabilities of our technology hardware will continue to evolve at accelerating rates, with all the associated consequences
  • The application of complexity theory to organizations as complex adaptive systems, both dynamic and chaotic

We need a better toolset for handling change.  For business leaders, neuroscience can seem like scary and unfamiliar territory that is both experimental and a long way from the day-to-day challenges of running a business.  But we now have close to 20 years of science about how the brain reacts to various kinds of stimuli and lots of findings that are directly applicable to understanding how people think about, experience and react to change. 

Consider the following questions:

  • How can I effectively focus my team on our new goals, knowing that those goals are themselves subject to change?
  • What will help my team effectively transition themselves to the new reality?

To answer these questions we need first to explore a few key ideas to set our teams up for successful change.

Being Intentional About Attention

As a business leader, you know all about managing scarce resources. Research unequivocally shows that in the brain, attention is an exceptionally scarce thinking resource especially in the face of tasks that require cognitively complex processing, as many corporate change initiatives do.2  In some ways, we all suffer from “attention deficiencies.” The current pace of change and the availability of information threatens to outstrip our ability to keep up. 

Managing change effectively requires that we actively acknowledge this scarcity and manage it as carefully as we manage our budgets.  There are great lessons here for change managers, inviting us to consider options we might not normally have considered, including finding a way to make change happen without attracting attention at all. 

The nature of your change should dictate the amount of attention it gets in your organization.

Attention and Change


Engaging Positive Emotions

While business doesn’t historically acknowledge a role for emotions, neuroscience studies are confirming that as we engage people’s attention (even subconsciously), we will probably engage emotions, lighting up the limbic brain.3  Although we often separate “thinking” from “feeling” linguistically, in reality both are happening in the brain at all times.  Research has shown that we tap into our emotional brains when we store memories, make decisions and engage our creativity4. This means our limbic brain is an important factor in getting to people’s best thinking and their best performance.  Simon Cooper, former President and CEO of Ritz-Carlton said, “When it comes to customers, feelings are facts.”  If we substitute the word ‘change’ for the word ‘customers’ his statement would still be equally true.  The neuroscience tells us our default setting is to look for threats or risks.  In fact, our brain scans the environment five times every second looking for risk.5  But it also tells us that emotions can be forces for good rather than evil, even in the workplace, and that great performance comes from people who are deeply and intrinsically motivated.  In the brain, those people literally experience at least some aspects of their work as a reward, lighting up the same brain centers as pleasure.  Fully engaging the enormous power of the brain means tapping into emotions – intentionally and positively. 

Engaging Emotion:  How Leadership Choices Drive a Spectrum of Responses

One company who was facing major role changes for the highly-educated workforce in its core line of business had the following options for managing the process of assigning its people to new roles. 


The company chose the “positive” option and, by combining transparency and personal choice, leadership helped minimize the threat of this potentially very destabilizing company-wide transition.  Employees expressed positive feedback for the level of effort, input and care put into this process.

Unlocking Insight Through Experience: “Insight-ing” Curiosity

The traditional change management approach focuses on giving people information.  Information is certainly necessary for change to happen but it is simply not sufficient.  Even information about personal benefits (affectionately known as the “WIIFM,” or “what’s in it for me?”) has been shown to be less than effective in driving actual changes in behavior.  So what’s a business leader to do? Traditionally, we have asked leaders to forge a path to the change, and hope that people will follow great leaders.  In the best of cases they do, but this leaves a whole lot of responsibility on your shoulders as a leader. 

The neuroscience research suggests that people are fully capable of motivating and driving their own change, and that meaningful change doesn’t happen until this occurs.6  The activation energy for this kind of change is rarely external, instead it must be an internal insight generated by and for each individual on their own terms.  Insights originate from unlocking the power of our subconscious and that means they are completely unique to the individual.  Your change is not my change is not your boss’ change. 

So how can you help hundreds or thousands of people experience that kind of insight?  Let’s start by changing our image of leadership.  Instead of forging a path to change, we suggest you engage the team early on to launch a journey of discovery in which you will participate with them.  In the brain, insight arises through the discovery process and discovery happens through experience.  Focus your change efforts on designing experiences that spark curiosity and enable discovery to allow people to generate their own insights.  To help them do so, engage curiosity and allow for customized exploration as early in the process as possible while the design is still flexible.  Take the change to them, let them live inside it for at least a few minutes, ask and answer their own questions and build at least an initial set of connections to the new reality. 

One company we worked with used appreciative inquiry techniques in their initial rollout of new cultural norms.  Open discussions about positive experiences with the key behaviors helped employees notice what was working and reinforced their expectations of success.  Not only did this activity engage positive emotions, but it also offered people a chance to discover on their own and produce their own insight, releasing a wash of positive brain chemicals that are experienced as a rush of energy and excitement.  Discovery literally makes the brain light up.  Is it any wonder that our metaphor for a great idea is a light bulb?

Next Steps

So how can you effectively focus your team on a new set of goals, knowing that those goals are themselves subject to change, and what will help them effectively transition themselves to the new reality?

The journey to a successful change begins with these three steps:

  1. Focus attention on the few most important changes
  2. Engage positive emotion
  3. Support the discovery of personal insights

Of course the journey does not end here.  For many changes, we will still need to undertake the pick and shovel work of skill acquisition and habit formation.  But for now, we have leveraged neuroscience and the power of the brain to launch us on a positive path, a path that is much more likely to result in successful transition or adoption of the change itself.

For more information, please contact:

Andrea Barrett
+1 404.975.6510
Andrea.Barrett@northhighland.com



[1] VUCA:  Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity, Stiehm, Judith Hicks and Nicholas W. Townsend (2002). The U.S. Army War College: Military Education in a Democracy. Temple University Press. p. 6. ISBN 1-56639-960-2.

[2] Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2001 Chapter 2, pages 34-35 and http://www.fnal.gov/pub/traffic_safety/files/NSC%20White%20Paper%20-%20Distracted%20Driving%203-10.pdf

[3] Naccache, L., Gaillard, R.L., Adam, C., Hasboun, D., Clemenceau, S., Baulac, M., Dehaene, S., & Cohen, L. (2005). A direct intracranial record of emotions evoked by subliminal words. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 102, 7713-7717.

[4] James L. McGaugh, Memory and Emotion:  The Making of Lasting Memories (New York, Columbia University Press, 2003)  And for a more recent update with numerous additional research links see McGaugh’s 2013 paper:  Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jun 18; 110(Suppl 2): 10402–10407. Published online 2013 Jun 10. doi:  10.1073/pnas.1301209110 PMCID: PMC3690616 Neuroscience  Making lasting memories: Remembering the significant James L. McGaugh.

[6] Gordon, E. et al. (2008), An “Integrative Neuroscience” platform: application to profiles of negativity and positivity bias, Journal of Integrative Neuroscience.


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