We live in an Anthropocene age. An age where our lives are dominated by human influence. Where everywhere you look, every news report you hear, people and organizations are instigating changes, for good or bad, which transform modern life. And although the diversity of human experience across the globe can vary according to factors like geography or culture, there are very few places in the world where people are immune to change – where they haven’t had to adapt to some kind of transformation whether that be in their environment, their societies, or by way of new technologies.
And so, regardless of whether change comes in the form of sudden shocks or long term trends, its presence and progression is an undeniable certainty. But what is more uncertain is the way that people respond to change. Do they embrace it? Do they thrive off it? Do they fear it? Or do they ignore it? The breadth of human character means that people deal with change differently depending on their own personal makeup, as well as the particular context and situation that they find themselves in.
And although you don’t always receive an advance warning that change is about to happen, you can still make sure you are prepared for when it does occur. This preparation takes many forms, but here we’re going to focus on one element – making sure you have a change-ready brain.
A change-ready brain.
Change is a multifaceted process, it requires a suite of cognitive and emotional skills to transport you smoothly through the process from start to finish. And being change-ready means that you have already spent the time and effort to strengthen this toolkit of mental skills so that you are primed and ready. This means that you are able to intelligently anticipate, prepare for, manage and respond to change. In doing so you are well placed to thrive off the resulting opportunities, as well as mitigate any potential negative consequences.
However, there is a catch. And this is that your brain is designed for sustainability. It is primed to conserve energy. It is driven by a desire to maintain a state of neurobiological balance. And it is biased to stay within the confines of what’s familiar.
All this can result in an in-built resistance to change which can manifest itself as a resistance to think or act differently, forming a barrier to change which trumps even the very best of intentions.
But why does the brain operate like this? And what can this tell us about how to overcome this psychological blockade? Not only so that you can facilitate change, but so that you can ensure that any change is stable and sustainable over time and that there aren’t any slips back into old habits.
Resistance to change.
Resistance to change can arise for a number of reasons. But the number one culprit is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the uncertain. Fear of the ambiguous. Fear causes people to stop in their tracks. It causes them to avoid rather than approach. It causes them to play safe. Very appropriate if you are trying to protect yourself against harm, but less so if it stops you embracing change and flourishing on the new opportunities on offer.
And whilst some individuals are “sensation seekers” who thrive off novelty, others have an inbuilt need to stay close to what’s familiar – an intolerance to unpredictability. Something that is defined in their biological makeup, causing them to prefer to stay with the status quo. Furthermore, as the human brain is powered by the same amount of energy as a single light bulb, it takes every possible opportunity to conserve energy – something that staying within the realms of the known, rather than venturing out into the unknown, helps it to do.
Situational and motivational factors.
Targeting the drivers of fear is at the heart of managing the process of change from a situational perspective, providing the optimal context for a change-ready brain. For example, change is associated with a lot of uncertainty. There are many yet unanswered questions. Organisations built on transparency and which promote a psychologically safe environment are often more successful at facilitating change because they remove uncertainty and ambiguity, reducing fear and enabling individuals to embrace and thrive on the unknown rather than run away from it. To be ok with not knowing.
It’s also worth remembering that doing nothing isn’t simply an act of inaction, it is an intentional, motivated and active state of mind which is driven by a desire to save energy. In other words it is a choice. And by providing the motivational drivers which help to shift this unconscious decision towards a path of considered action, rather than sticking with the status quo, will help to bolster a person’s internal motivation to embrace change.
Change Readiness in the brain
But beyond these situational and motivational factors, there are many things that you can do from the perspective of the brain. A change-ready brain is one that can overcome the psychological barriers which cause people to resist change. It is based around 3 core pillars of flexibility, insight and resilience. Each pillar is composed of multiple capabilities which can be tracked and developed through training and development to maximise an individual’s change readiness.
For example the pillar of Flexibility targets a person’s ability to maximise their cognitive control so that the can shift their mental resources effectively in line with changing situational demands. It targets their ability to adapt to uncertainty so that they can weather out the unpredictable storm of change by promoting curiosity. And it targets their ability to flexibility time travel in their mind between the past, present and future to capitalize on what they have learnt from experiences and bring acute foresight to overcome current challenges.
The pillar of Insight focuses on a person’s ability to overcome the pitfalls of rigid thinking so that they can generate creative solutions to complex problems, instead of finding themselves always mentally travelling down the same well-worn neural pathways. It focuses on their ability to build on the brain’s innate predictive power to fill in the gaps and create a vision for the future. And it focuses on their ability to overcome biases and blind spots which can hinder their decision-making and cause unwanted surprises.
Finally, the pillar of resilience is all about managing an individual’s stress levels and being able to regulate their emotions so they don’t get out of hand. It is about learning from past regrets and failures so they create strategies which don’t repeat past mistakes. And it is about having confidence in their own abilities and the belief that they have what it takes to succeed through the process of change.
Change readiness – a way forward.
In sum, change readiness allows individuals to be pre-armed with the tools and mental resources needed to succeed under changing circumstances, making the most of the opportunities on offer and more easily building new routines into their daily habits without the disabling barriers of fear or apathy.
Written by Amy Brann.
Amy Brann will be speaking at the Spotlight Stage at OEB Global 2019.