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Neuroscience and Change – Part 1

| July 19, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Earlier this summer, on June 14, MOR Associates hosted a virtual conference focused on the theme Reimagining IT as University Needs and Technology Evolves.  There we heard from five university CIOs about the changes underway at their universities.  [Their remarks can be found here.]  Two weeks ago, in the Tuesday Reading Revolutionary Relationships, I asked, as we did at the conference, “whether this is the time when disruptive innovation upsets IT service organizations that have evolved over the past?”
I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is “yes” and, so, want to turn to the subject of change since reimagining IT will involve significant change.  Most if not all of us, if we are really honest with ourselves, react negatively when change is forced upon us.  Think about the last time you were in a hurry and the traffic was backed up and you had no option but to delay your journey or change from your usual route.  Or, the time when someone with more authority told you to take on some new unwanted responsibilities.  Almost no one reacts well to such forced changes.
Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system including the brain, can help us understand why we react the way we do.  Scarlett and Pounsford (see references below) suggest that “if we understand the brain better, then we can help organizations, leaders, and all employees work more efficiently and effectively.”
Scarlett also points out, in her essay “Helping employees through change,” that our brains still have the same physical makeup as those of our ancient ancestors, though we do have a larger and more developed prefrontal cortex than they had. The basic activity of prefrontal cortex is to orchestrate an individual’s thoughts and actions in accordance with their internal goals.
In the days of our ancient ancestors, an individual’s brain had one key goal – survival, avoiding threats and seeking rewards (e.g., food).  And, of the two, avoiding threats – the “saber-toothed tiger” and neighboring warring tribes – had the much higher priority.  As a result, their brains and ours have five times more neural networks to look for danger than to look for reward.  And even today, our brains still subconsciously look for threats five times a second.  (The limbic system processes these stimuli before they reach conscious awareness providing us with an ongoing, nonconscious intuition of what is meaningful to you in every situation of your daily life.)
So, what happens when your brain’s prefrontal cortex is presented with a threat, say a major ambiguity compared to your goals or a major change?  Since the brain has only limited capacity and energy, it focuses on the threat and how to respond to it.  The result is we become distracted, focusing on how to understand what the threat or change or uncertainty means for “me.”  This response changes the way we see and engage the world around us.
Minor threats are easily seen as “larger than life,” and we may even see threats where none exist.  “Why didn’t my manager smile and say ‘Hi’ when I saw him in the hall?”  “Why wasn’t I invited to the meeting?”  “Why did they begin whispering when I came into the coffee room?”  In such an environment, colleagues can easily be seen as threats.
And, it gets worse.  If our colleagues and leaders are seen to feel worried and fearful, then we too will begin to be worried and fearful.  There is less focus on work, their field of focus is lessened, and people move to a more emotional state and have greater difficulty in calming their feelings.  Scarlett puts it this way:  “[T]he brain, when facing change and uncertainty, becomes like the brain in an adolescent, quick to get emotional and angry, struggling to think clearly.”
So, when an organization is in the process of a major set of changes, when staff and leaders need to think clearly, the ability to think clearly and perform effectively is diminished, stress increases, and performance declines.  All of this takes the organization to lower levels of performance when just the opposite is needed.  Scarlett sees this as a vicious circle:  Change or ambiguity is present;  leading to a threat response in the brain;  resulting in distraction, anxiety, and fear;  giving rise to poor performance and more aggressive relationships; creating even more change and ambiguity;  …
While what I’ve outlined here is, or can easily become, reality in many organizations, it does not have to be.  Neuroscience research has identified five “domains” that can have a major impact on motivation and engagement, activating our brains either positively or negatively.
And, we’ll focus on these “domains” and provide suggestions on approaches you may choose to use to reduce a threat response in the next Tuesday Reading.  In the meantime, when you see change or ambiguity before you, don’t automatically “go negative.”  Stop, take a few deep breadths and ask yourself what other interpretations could there be of what you are experiencing.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Hilary Scarlett and Mike Pounsford, Neuroscience and organizational change – providing the evidence.  [Link no longer available – Ed.]
Hilary Scarlett, Neuroscience:  Helping employees through change.  [Link no longer available – Ed.]