Laying the Foundation for Successful Change with Neuroscience

Organizations have been using ‘change agents’ or ‘change champions’ for years to help establish reliable two-way communications between a central group (e.g., corporate office or project team) and a broader employee population. However, the success of a change agent network in driving stakeholder acceptance and adoption squarely rests on the way it is designed and launched. In our work, we have found that a unique, people-centered approach to change management, incorporating neuroscience principles, makes change agent networks really work. 

Why Neuroscience Matters

Neuroscience is the study of the brain and how cognitive functions impact the way people think and behave. Research in the field of neuroscience suggests that a change agent network drives value for an organization not only by helping messages reach all levels more effectively, but because a change agent network can impact the extent to which an individual chooses to adopt change. Change will often lead to a period of uncertainty and in uncertain times people inherently look to their existing, trusted relationships for guidance. Change agents who are familiar faces will likely have a strong influence on decisions and behaviors during these times. 

Empower Change Agents

A change agent network must be empowered with true ownership of the change. This ownership should come both from change agent accountability in achieving target adoption levels as well as the central group that provides the change agent with the knowledge, skills, and influence to do so. For example, change agents should not just be given a ‘party line’ to communicate. This could be perceived as insincere and may lead to negative results. Instead, a change agent should be given the authority to translate a message based on their unique understanding of stakeholders. Tailoring the message also serves as a knowledge check for change agents by testing their own understanding of the change. 

Instill Trust

People often associate change with threat and fear, causing people to naturally resist it. Research in neuroscience teaches us that feelings of threat and fear are lessened when messages are delivered from a familiar, trusted person. Building on this, recognized neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered that neurons in our brains give us capacity for shared experiences with others. This is most effective when communication is done in person, supporting the case for a localized change agent network.   

Elicit Support

Robert Cialdini’s Social Proof Theory suggests that when a person is unsure of what to do or how to behave, he or she imitates others. The extent to which someone will imitate or copy another person is dependent on the closeness of the relationship between the stakeholder population and the change agent. When effective, a change agent will model expected behavior – including support for a change – and their influence will help to encourage others to imitate this behavior. 

Using Neuroscience to Power Successful Change Agent Networks 

Although simple in theory, the value from a change agent network is highly dependent on engaging the right individuals as change agents. Applying the principles of neuroscience, here are the four key steps to establishing a successful change agent network: 

  1. Influence: Examine the existing formal and informal networks to understand who the influencers are within an organization. The hierarchy and culture of an organization may play a role in determining where influence resides. Consider collecting peer-to-peer nominations to uncover who is seen as a leader among their peers. However, even if a change agent is nominated by his or her peers, management must buy-in to the additional responsibility that the individual may take on in his or her role
  2. Structure: Change agent networks should operate outside of the constraints of organizational structure. Do not feel limited by the way functions are grouped or reporting relationships are established. Design the change agent network based on what will make the greatest impact in driving adoption and elevating feedback. 
  3. Scale: The size of the organization, scope of stakeholder levels, and diversity of stakeholder groups should influence the design of the change agent network. Change agent selection and distribution should mirror the characteristics of impacted stakeholders. 
  4. Challenge: Don’t always select people who support the change without question. Sometimes, individuals who initially challenge the change become the best advocates because they truly understand the change before supporting it. 

As you consider whether change agent networks are right for your organization, consider your own experiences with change explained by the principles of neuroscience:  

Can you tell when a colleague or leader is repeating a scripted message rather than genuinely sharing a message with you? 

How was your experience different when a trusted colleague told you important information as opposed to reading it in a corporate communication? 

Who do you look to for guidance or support when learning something new?