Leadership Tips: Why the Brain Resists Change


Whether it’s going to the gym three times a week, eating more healthily, improving customer service or introducing a new IT system, change is hard. While there has been plenty written about change management and the psychology of change, many practitioners fail to deliver the desired outcomes.

In fact, change is so hard we won’t do it, even when faced with life threatening consequences; as few as 1 in 7 patients that have suffered a heart attack make the advised lifestyle changes to avoid further health problems.

However, growing research in the field of neuroscience, linking brain structures and functioning to our emotions, perceptions and behaviour, means that we are beginning to understand why. And this body of evidence offers valuable insight on how we can lead more effectively, in synchronicity with how the brain works, through a discipline called Neuro-Leadership.

So how can business leaders use this research to lead change effectively?

Example: Ted is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. He knows big changes are needed, as continuing decline in the market for their beauty products means they need to diversify into more health and lifestyle products. He needs his highly competitive, siloed teams of sales specialists to collaborate, to create and deliver a new go-to market strategy. In short he has to change the way people think and behave.

  1. Change is pain

    Have you ever felt like the biggest effort is actually getting to the gym in the first place not the workout once you’re there?

    Changing habits at a neurological level takes mental attention and energy so the pure cognitive effort of changing a habit is experienced as stressful and uncomfortable on a physiological level, the result being that we avoid it. There is also a strong emotional component to how we experience change. Our brain is wired to detect anything out of the ordinary and when it does it gives us error signals. These error signals work on the fear centre in the primitive part of our brain, they fire up our animal instincts, and this often means an emotional and irrational response to change.

    Example: On Thursday afternoon, after a particularly busy week with some challenging distributor issues, Ted asks his two sales teams to have a conference call to start discussing how to align their sales processes - two of the team avoid the meeting completely, and the remaining team are defensive, debate rages, tempers flare and the meeting ends with little progress. The teams’ brains are resisting the change.
  2. Focus matters

    Myth: It takes 21 days to make or break a habit!
    Truth: Recent research suggests its closer to 63 days.

    There is no magic number really, but what is proven is that prolonged attention can create change.

    In a process termed neuroplasticity, scientists have long known that patients with brain damage can form new neural connections with different parts of the brain taking over functions from damaged areas. We now know that this amazing ability to shape our brain can result from just concentrating on a mental experience. The brain changes as a function of what we focus on, so we can literally change the way we think just by paying better attention.

    Stop a moment to consider the implications for businesses and specialists who focus on something every day in comparison to those that don’t.

    Physiologically their brain is structured differently with different pathways and connections, meaning they can’t see the world the same way as other people. This explains the siloed mentality often seen between functions within your organisations and why collaboration (many different mental maps working in synergy) can be such a challenge. Many aspects of our lives shape our thinking, not just where we focus our attention, but also our beliefs, values, and experiences. These are wired into our neural structure and become part of our unique mental maps of the world.

    Example: At the sales teams’ meeting one of the emotive issues was how to deal with customer complaints. Mel one of the sales team, valued the long term relationships she had with customers, understood their frustrations with delivery delays and was keen to take action on their feedback. Her colleague Alex viewed them as troubled children and just wanted to pacify them as quickly as possible and move onto making new sales. They had very different mental maps of customers.
  3. Brain savvy change

    Effective change leadership means helping others to make adjustments to their mental maps.

    This requires:
    - an event or experience that promotes insight
    - an ‘aha’ moment that creates a new neural connection that enables a shift in how they see the world
    - an opportunity for them to focus attention on that insight, facilitating self-directed neuroplasticity (thinking differently)

Whether it’s individual or organisational level changes that you’re trying to implement remember these tips to enable change more effectively:

Change is pain

- Change takes cognitive effort. Plan around this, for example, schedule meetings for first thing when people’s heads are clear and they have energy.

- Change is perceived by the brain as a threat, think about how to manage the emotional reaction. Try starting a meeting with a simple SWOT analysis; it can help people express feelings around threats in a constructive way.

Focus matters

- Attention matters. If you have an insight into a change and you want to make the neural connection stronger, regularly focus on the thought, experience or picture in your mind’s eye.

- Different mental maps. Look for opportunities to encourage empathy, that is experiencing how others feel, and cognitively taking different perspectives. Try job swops to get ‘a day in the life of’ experiences or team activities like Debono’s 6 Thinking Hats

Brain savvy change

- Change needs insights and attention. Think about events and experiences you can create to enable insight.

Our solution: LeadChange delivered an experiential learning with horses workshop for Ted and the two sales teams. They worked with the horses on the ground and at liberty (no riding, no rope) the horses providing instant, honest, accurate feedback moment by moment to their energy and behaviour. As individuals this ‘equine mirror’ developed self-awareness and insights into their mental maps. As a team they explored energy & focus and working with powerful intention to get the horse trotting and jumping over a fence. They also bonded as a team.

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