Old dogs can learn new tricks: implementing brain friendly change

By Gary Luffman, Director at think.change. Gary is facilitating a workshop as part of the Behavioural Science at Work conference and workshop, 19 – 20 September 2017, London.

‘Old dogs can learn new tricks’

That’s the truth. It has been proven that the adult brain can, and does, change in response to its working environment. This is termed ‘neuroplasticity’, and its significance for HR and L&D practices is profound.

The eminent psychologist Dr Walter Mischel described neuroplasticity as the most significant discovery in social science of his lifetime.

So if the human brain is wired for change, how come organisational change still has such a poor track record?

As change facilitators, when working with clients we still frequently encounter ‘the top telling the middle what to do to the bottom’ as the only change model. Typically, studies of organisational change projects report a ‘success’ rate of around 40%; meaning around a whopping 60% of change efforts are either compromised or failed.

Thankfully, neuroscience and psychology provide us with enhanced understanding of how the brain perceives, processes and responds to change. We use this understanding to help our clients plan, implement and measure change from a more informed position. They can lead and communicate change in a ‘brain friendly’ way, avoiding negative triggers.

So, what does brain friendly change look like?

Being told to engage with change is unlikely to provide employees with sufficient motivation to do so. To embed sustainable change, sharing the science and mechanisms of neuroplasticity can in itself be a very powerful, reassuring start point for supporting change.

We need to give all those effected by organisation change a framework through which to consider it, its implications for them, and how they can adapt to it. They will require time and space; too often, this is overlooked.

I recently worked with a large organisation who had defined a new strategic vision, that then needed to be rolled out. The senior leadership team undertook workshops and extensive away days to refine and understand the change plan. The rest of the organisation, however, were largely limited to a quick ‘town hall’ broadcast session and a soft copy of the slide deck.

Little wonder that employees struggled to engage with the new ‘agile, entrepreneurial, outward looking’ approach; they weren’t given the framework, time or space to do so.

Quality focus

Our mood has a significant effect on our cognitive performance. We know that an ‘anxious brain’ behaves in a very different way to a ‘calm, safe brain’. Therefore, when communicating and implementing change, it is important to create and maintain what is known as a ‘state of relaxed alertness’.

I came across a very stark example of this in recent discussions with a large supermarket chain. They sought to implement change through innovative and creative approaches, not in themselves a bad idea.

However, with employees under extreme pressure to deliver results, their attempts to implement change were unsuccessful. A fear of failure meant employees were resistant; a ‘threat response’ mind-set inhibited the organisation’s ability to change. Creating ‘relaxed alertness’ is therefore required to truly implement sustainable change.

Neuroscience and psychology hold the key to embedding successful change. If you’re attending my workshop as part of the CIPD’s Behavioural Science at Work conference, we’ll explore the solutions to these common change issues. We’ll look at the practical tips and tricks of behavioural science to ensure positive, valuable outcomes for you and your organisation.

Join Gary Luffman at the Behavioural Science at Work conference and workshop, 19 – 20 September 2017, London. 

Book before 3 August and save up to £105 

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.