The New Science of Change (CIO)

October 2, 2006

Pictures don’t (usually) lie, and the pictures of the brain show that our responses to change are predictable and universal. From a neurological perspective, we all respond to change in the same way: We try to avoid it.

Though no conclusive research has yet been done, surveys have shown that people’s primary motivation in the workplace is neither money nor advancement but rather a personal interest in their jobs, a good environment and fulfilling relationships with colleagues. The effects of bonuses, promotions and reprimands, though real and measurable, are all temporary.

The way to get past the prefrontal cortex’s defenses is to help people come to their own resolution regarding the concepts causing their prefrontal cortex to bristle. These moments of resolution or insight—call them epiphanies—appear to be as soothing to the prefrontal cortex as the unfamiliar is threatening.

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The Joy of Repetition

Once people have had that initial insight or epiphany that change is necessary, they need to repeat the experience in order to reinforce it and to experience the potential pleasure that can be derived from it. The complex brain connections that are formed during the epiphany phase need to be supported to begin the process of hard-wiring the basal ganglia.

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The Joy of Repetition

Once people have had that initial insight or epiphany that change is necessary, they need to repeat the experience in order to reinforce it and to experience the potential pleasure that can be derived from it. The complex brain connections that are formed during the epiphany phase need to be supported to begin the process of hard-wiring the basal ganglia.

One of the best ways to bring the skeptics around is through learning. At the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board, a change readiness survey of employees at the beginning of an effort to shift compensation cases from paper folders to electronic files found that employees’ number-one demand was for training. “They wanted reassurance that we weren’t going to ask them to do something new without giving them the support they needed to do it,” says Nancy Mulholland, who is deputy executive director and CIO of the board.

“Learning is the antidote to change resistance,” says Wakefield. “Learning lets you reframe the change from being something bad for you to something that can have value for you.”

The learning environment has to be one in which employees will not be reprimanded or embarrassed for revealing their discomfort with the new way of doing things. “You have to give people the sense that feeling uncomfortable is a normal part of change and address their concerns about losing face because of their lack of confidence and competence,” says Wakefield. One of the ways to do that is to put people together who share a similar status in the organization and are facing a similar change so they can see that they’re not alone—a species of corporate support group. When groups are too threatening, individual coaching can help.

The Hard Edge of the Soft Stuff

Change management is time-consuming and hard to quantify for process-oriented CIOs. But avoiding the challenge leads to failure. “Anybody can stick $2,000 in someone’s face to get them to finish a job, but it’s the people who can inspire others to follow them that are the most successful in the long run,” says PharMerica’s Toole. “The soft stuff is important.”

But inspiring others to change isn’t a matter of charisma or charm, say the experts. It’s finding a way to spark those epiphanies.

Sparks’s latest tactic for engaging his staff’s prefrontal cortexes was to bring in an outside consultant to discuss the ITIL program and to field concerns.

“We had an outstanding instructor, and she was able to address many of the questions people had,” recalls Sparks. “I could begin to see the lights come on in some of the [skeptics]. After a long meeting, one of my people stood up and said, ‘You know, we should have started working on this [automated monitoring] six months ago.'”

 

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