ATD Blog

How Could Neuroscience Change the Way We Manage Change

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Part 4 in a 4-part series on what the Human Capital Community of Practice can learn from neuroscience.

In part four of this four-part series on what neuroscience can offer to the Human Capital Community of Practice, Dr. Erika Garms explores change management—both on individual and organizational levels—and looks for opportunities to ease the pain and increase the success of change efforts.

In the brain, change is associated with error detection, threats, and fear. Change quickly fires a threat response; in fact, merely receiving advice or information can be registered in the mind as change and elicits the same threat response. Neuroscience research clearly shows us that threat response sharply reduces use of the prefrontal cortex, where higher-order thinking occurs. Brain science also tells us that when a person has cognitions (thoughts) that are not related, or that conflict with each other, we experience anxiety and stress. This is called “cognitive dissonance.” It has been found that having consonant (congruent) cognitions is as desirable as food, shelter, water, and safety. This is why change is so difficult!

If change causes us to experience this unpleasant cognitive dissonance, then how can we best manage change? For more than 15 years I have considered myself a change management practitioner and have grown accustomed to using techniques which are widely used and accepted by the global business community. During those 15 years, one measure of success has not changed substantially: 60 to 70 percent of change efforts still fail to meet their intended goals. In any other context, would that failure rate be acceptable? Would we submit ourselves to a surgery that had a 30 percent success rate? Would we bring our car to a mechanic who touted a 30 percent chance of the fix succeeding? It appears that new change management methods and tools are simply reconfigurations or variations of existing methods and tools. Even some of the best-known and most respected change management methodology providers build their systems on similar conceptual foundations. And, it appears that they continue to fill certification program seats at a cost of $2-$10,000 per person. To improve the return on that kind of investment, we might try embedding some neuroscientific principles into the methods used.


What would be different then, if neuroscience principles were factored into change management methodologies? Well, at the individual level, we might encourage and support people holding dissonant cognitions. To navigate the anxiety and stress of dissonant cognitions, one can be coached to ignore one or more cognitions; decide to change the importance of one or more cognitions; or add creative cognitions. It is important to note that if there is no dissonance, there can be no change. So closely analyzing specific changes needed must take place so that just the right amount of dissonance can be elicited. There is a happy (well, at least ideal) medium.


At the organizational level, let’s take a classic, well-used change approach—Lewin’s 3-Step Change Model—and adapt it slightly using neuroscience, in the hopes of increasing the effectiveness of the change effort. In the “Unfreezing” step, Lewin suggests we begin to think differently about the existing situation (or reality, or process). A strategy here, supported by neuroscience, could be to increase the visible driving forces and decrease the restraining forces. This gives attention and focus to creating a new outcome, which in turn creates motion toward what is new. In the second step, “Movement”, we move toward a new equilibrium and view the problem from a new perspective. An effective strategy here is reappraisal. Those navigating a change can be taught the skills involved in reappraising as a method of both emotional regulation and how to maintain their job effectiveness. Finally, in the “Refreezing” stage, we consolidate new beliefs and behaviors. We integrate new ideas or processes. Brain science would tell us here, that new beliefs and behaviors are now being hardwired in our basal ganglia. Once there, these new beliefs and behaviors become comfortable and possibly even rewarding.

Keep the following five brain-based tips at the forefront of the change initiative planning:

  1. Remember that personal reputations are at stake in the midst of organizational change. Status is important to our brains, and not knowing the new pecking order is anxiety-producing. Clarify where and when possible.
  2. The most common unmet need in times of change is the need for certainty. Lack of information triggers threat. Share as much information as possible, even when the only information is that more answers are being sought.
  3. There is oftentimes a perceived helplessness associated with the change effort. Helplessness causes emotional responses such as depression and apathy. Encourage others to see their own autonomy and focus on where it does exist rather than where it may not.
  4. Those people enduring change need to continue to feel like they are still part of a comfortable group (their in-group). Look for opportunities to reinforce pre-existing group relationships.
  5. Employees need to believe that there is equity associated with decisions made in a change effort. Highlight the basis on which decisions were made where possible to assure others of fair proceedings.

A related, interesting article can be found at: .

About the Author

Erika Garms works with leaders who need their teams to work, manage, and innovate smarter. As CEO of WorkingSmarts (, she uses her gift for translating powerful scientific theory to everyday workplace practice. Erika has played a number of consulting and leadership roles in her 26-year career, including serving as an internal consultant, an organization development unit manager, and an organization development/change/executive management consultant with two large, global management consulting firms. She also helped to establish start-up HR and IT consultancies. Erika has worked for and with public sector and private sector organizations across many industries – from food to finance, education to energy. She earned a BA and an MA from the University of Colorado, a PhD from the University of Minnesota, and completed a post-graduate program with distinction from the NeuroLeadership Institute/Sussex University.  Garms is the author of, “The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas from Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges” (ATD Press, 2014) and is a regular speaker at conferences, company meetings, and management retreats across the U.S. and abroad.

1 Comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Thanks for sharing your insights.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.