Human resources and talent management professionals have long known that no-one really likes change. In fact, helping senior management lead change has become a core human resources competency. Change is feared because the brain, which is hard-wired to survive, perceives change as a threat.  This, in turn, causes an eruption of negative emotions which cause the brain and body to go into a threat response mode. Anxiety reaches new highs, thinking becomes muddled, and the brain and the body instinctively resist the perceived threat. These responses are so instantaneous that they may not even be recognised at first by the person experiencing the response.

Neuroscience studies have given us a deeper understanding of the fear of change – that the human brain will resist change that is perceived as a threat. This has widespread implications for how human resources and talent management professionals approach change management. If change is presented as a crisis, “if we don’t change immediately, we will all be out of a job” or is a “just do it and don’t ask questions” approach is taken, the change effort will likely fail.

For change management to be successful, a more thought-through approach is needed. Human resources professionals and other leaders should:

  1. Create a safe space for conversations about the intended change – trust is key in change initiatives and a context where concerns can be raised without fear of retribution is needed.
  2. Focus on the positive aspects of the intended change – reducing stress and anxiety by highlighting the possible big “wins” that will be achieved goes a long way to getting staff to feel more at ease with the change process.
  3. Ask questions and listen actively to employees’ concerns – asking questions leads to discussions, even if the questions don’t have apparent answers. Active listening hears the emotions that are being expressed – these can then be addressed.
  4. Get closer to employees – change often pushes people apart and small groups of dissent are formed. Prevent this from happening by being inclusive and creating frequent opportunities for discussions.

The above actions enhance the brain’s ability to adjust its responses to the intended change and perceive it as non-threatening. Use neuroscience in change processes.

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