This Is Your Brain on Change

How neuroscience can come to the aid of HR.

By Jan Hills
Without question, one of the core skills needed by leaders today is the ability to lead change. No organization will thrive in the future if change is not an accepted feature of daily life. Some change will be incremental and small, some revolutionary and large. But whatever the change, if an organization cannot embed and adapt to it, then chances are the organization will not be around for long. In the world of outsourcing, embedding the change for both the outsourced part of the organization and the retained organization is critical to success.
The organizations’ leaders play a crucial role here. They must deal with change masterfully themselves. But they must also understand how to lead their function and the rest of the business through change. They must know how to prepare for it, how to anticipate obstacles, and how to ensure the best changes are made. They must also know how to embed change in an organization through its people so that change can take root with the minimum of disruption to business performance.
We have worked extensively with organizations to identify the key components of the change process and the mindset and skill set required to be change leaders. We have also used social neuroscience to deepen our understanding of how human beings respond to change, and how leaders can use this science to their advantage in change leadership.
HR as Neuroscience
Social neuroscience is the study of how the brain works and how this influences social interactions and behavior. Recent developments have shed a new and fascinating light on how people react to change, and therefore how the best leaders can manage people through it.
The first key development was in 2000, when Evian Gordon proposed a new theory that one of the primary organizing principles governing social behavior is a desire to maximize reward and minimize threat. Then in 2008, M.D. Lieberman and N.I. Eisenberg, writing for the NeuroLeadership Journal, found that in many situations, the neural networks used to maximize reward and minimize threat are the same as those used for critical survival needs. This implies that the brain treats social needs in the same way as it treats the need for food and shelter.
In a change situation, there is a tendency for the threat response to be activated, according to Gordon. But with careful management, leaders can minimize this and even activate rewards responses.
Many notable scientists in the field have produced a mass of data relevant to leadership and change. Some of the challenge is sifting through all the information and drawing together the meaning for leaders. We have done that. Then we use the relevant information in our change leadership programs, and we’ve used the positive results we’re beginning to see with clients to develop a model to help leaders of change—our CORE model.
Our CORE model sheds light on how people react to change and why many find it so difficult. In particular, it helps us identify the drivers of threat and reward responses in people. The model is based on the two neuro-scientific insights we mentioned above:
1. Motivation driving social behavior is governed by a principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward.
2. The brain networks we draw on to minimize threat and maximize reward are the same brain networks used for our primary survival needs.
In other words, the brain treats social needs in the same way as it treats the need for food and water. You will notice that “threat” appears on our model much larger than “reward.” This is because our brain is wired to look for threats rather than rewards. It’s one of the reasons humans have survived so long. But it also means we need many more reward responses than you’d expect in order to feel good, and that one threat can override a number of rewards.
CORE Elements
The CORE model identifies the common factors that activate both reward and threat responses in social situations. These fall into four elements of human social experience:
Certainty: the knowledge that we can predict what will happen in
the near future.
Options: the extent to which we feel we have choice over what we do.
Reputation: our relative importance to others.
Equity: our sense that things are equitable.
When we go through change, we experience the change as a threat or reward to any or all of these four CORE elements.
So for example, moving to a new job structure as a result of outsourcing functions may create a threat to some people’s certainty, because they are less likely to predict what their new role will be like. On the other hand, if they were able to outline their role or location preferences, they might perceive a reward to their options. Having gotten the job, they may also experience a reward response to their reputation. Finally, they may feel that although not everyone got a job, in the end the process was equitable and transparent—and so they experience this as a reward to their sense of equity.

These four elements activate either the “primary reward” or the “primary threat” circuitry of the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s sense of equity activates similar brain networks to a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase to your reputation activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward. Our reaction happens in a nanosecond and is an automatic response.
Why So Important?
Whether people feel a threat or a reward will have significant impact on their problem solving, decision-making, stress management, collaboration, and motivation (see graphic below). Knowing the drivers that cause a threat response enables us to design initiatives to minimize threats. Knowing about the drivers that can activate a reward response enables us to motivate people more.


In a stable environment there is clearly great value in being able to recognize these many responses (using them to light up reward pathways in ways that don’t just confer material rewards like money or promotion, for example). In times of change, understanding these responses is even more important. When the status quo is disrupted, we are constantly and unconsciously scanning for ways in which we are threatened in all of these CORE elements. Our brains are wired to look for threats rather than rewards, and when a threat is found, there is a significant decrease in the resources available to the prefrontal cortex: the part of the brain responsible for planning, decision making, and moderating behavior. Our focus is on dealing with the threat until it is resolved. Performance and productivity invariably suffer as a result—causing maximum disruption in a time of change. If we can take the sense of threat from an unconscious to a conscious level, we are able to deal with it. To do that, leaders must mitigate the threat by removing it or triggering a reward to compensate for it.
The table below shows some of the typical threat triggers in each of the CORE elements. It also shows actions that are more likely to trigger reward or mitigate the threat.
Understanding these responses in ourselves, being sensitive to them in others, and equipping all leaders to consider them provides an enormously valuable tool in successfully implementing change.

In our work we have found that adopting this approach reduces resistance, maintains productivity, and eases the transition to a new way of working.
Jan Hills is a partner at Orion Partners. She is responsible for the capability and change leadership practices.

Tags: Consultants & Advisors, HRO Today Global, Professional Contribution

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