Positive leadership

Ep 25: Unlock the six secrets to successful change management

November 23, 2023

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I'm Sarah — leadership and communication mentor.  I'm here to help you grow your leadership, resilience, and influence. 

Meet Saran

Change can be challenging, whether it’s on a personal or organisational level. But by understanding the inner workings of our brains, we can make small adjustments to the way we approach change and achieve better results. Neuroscience and behavioural psychology offer us new perspectives, allowing us to better understand people’s motivations and how to effectively lead and engage individuals. It is not just about soft skills, but about scientifically proven strategies that can drive success.

In this practical and easy-to-implement episode, I will be discussing why change is difficult and introducing the six change muscles that we can develop to navigate change better. I also provide insights into why these muscles are important and strategies to strengthen them.

Join me as we uncover the secrets to building change resilience and thriving in times of uncertainty. It’s time to make those tiny tweaks that will transform your approach to change. 

So let’s dive in and start Positively Leading our way through change.

Want to listen? Just click play below!

Prefer to read? Check out the article below.

Unlock the six secrets to successful change management

How much time have you spent thinking about the process of change? Do you manage change effectively for yourself and others? I’m going to offer some small tweaks that you can make to improve this area of your leadership. 

We know that change isn’t easy. Big changes, whether personal or organisational, can be tricky but the constant small changes that layer up can also be challenging. Using neuroscience to help understand our brains we can make tweaks to the way that we manage change and also achieve better results. Viewing change through the lens of neuroscience allows us to bring scientific evidence to leading and engaging people, and helps us to understand their motivations more carefully. Neuroscience also helps us understand what helps keep us healthy, happy, and high achieving – it helps us not just survive, but thrive through change. 

Why is change so hard? 

The reason is to do with our brains. Our brain is wired for survival with a primary role of moving us away from threats and towards rewards. In prehistoric times the threat response – fight, flight, or freeze – kept our ancestors safe from sabre-toothed tigers, and today it’s still going strong! 

The reward and threat responses can impact us both physically and mentally, with the threat response being much stronger. As leaders, we need to be aware of this extra sensitivity to threats and keep this in mind whenever we’re going through change in order to explore ways to counterbalance it. 

Our brains are also prediction machines which also contributes to why change is so hard; they are constantly trying to predict what’s going to happen stemming from our brain’s drive to protect us and keep us safe. If the brain can predict what’s going to happen, it can be in a better place to guard us. Predictions also help us to make decisions faster, subconsciously, and with less energy and effort. As change involves uncertainty, and often not knowing information, this prevents our brains from doing what they like to do best – prediction. This leads to anxiety and tiredness (as overtime is needed!) in our brains and those of our teams. 

Another reason we struggle with change is due to our brain’s need to conserve energy – they even take shortcuts to do so. This can lead to reflexive thinking, or what Daniel Kahneman calls system one thinking. This is when thinking mainly comes from our subconscious and is instinctive and automatic. Compared to system two thinking, which is when we engage our prefrontal cortex and our logical thinking brain. When the brain uses system one thinking to conserve energy it leaves us open to making mistakes. Our brains don’t like it when change occurs as it brings a huge amount of uncertainty and ambiguity and means that they can’t work on autopilot. When we are uncertain, areas in the brain that are part of our fear network become along with our threat system which negatively impacts our ability to focus and perform. 

When we find change challenging as leaders (or when we see teachers or team members struggling with change) it’s not a sign that we’re weak, unmotivated, or failing in some way; our brains just struggle with it! When the fight, flight, or freeze response happens, blood flows away from our prefrontal cortex where logical thinking, planning, and emotional management take place – it goes to our limbs to get us ready to fight instead. Crucially, this means we can’t think as clearly, and unless we do something about it the aroused amygdala means that we can become anxious and we even start to see threats as bigger than they are, or even where they don’t exist. As we are wired for negativity, we also start to negatively speculate. Just when we need people to be thinking at their best, to implement change, manage integrating new things, learn new skills, implement new policies etc, the brain is not focused and our thinking is impaired. And it’s this that makes change so hard. 

The six secrets to change management. 

My research and work point to six change muscles that we can develop as leaders. We can make some tiny tweaks with our schools, teams, and organisations that can really help us to navigate change better. They are all based on a deeper understanding of neuroscience and psychology – why we do what we do and how we can positively impact both the process and outcome of change. 

1. Performance

What can we do to keep ourselves and others performing at or near their best? Remember, the threat response triggers fight or flight and means that there is less emotional control along with perhaps increased anxiety, distraction, and seeing threats as more than they are or where they don’t exist. The result is that this can lead to reduced memory, poor performance, a decrease in dopamine, and an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. In comparison, the reward response can lead to positive emotions, more focus, a willingness to collaborate, the ability to learn, creative thinking, and increased dopamine. So, we want to try and move people away from the threat response and towards the reward response. There are three ways we can do this: 

Remind people of past achievements 

I often do this at the start of workshops and meetings because I know it’s going to create a more positive state of mind as it generates dopamine, making people much more open to learning. You could consider what you have done well in the past and how you navigated them. The appreciative inquiry model of coaching can also guide meetings – look at what’s working and what has been achieved, rather than the distance ahead. 

Give praise and recognition

This must be genuine, specific, and ideally regular. Doing this helps to move people into a positive state and generates dopamine. Surprise praise or rewards can generate even more dopamine, so they’re even better!

Allow whenever possible for people to reach their own insight

Peter Senge says that people don’t resist change, they resist being changed. We know that the brain craves information, but equally powerful is that the brain wants to reach its own insights. When we’ve made an active choice, we tend to like things better. But, any kind of involvement must be genuine. 

2. Community

Human beings have a need to feel that they belong and are connected to others. This need increases during times of uncertainty. Unfortunately, in the middle of change or uncertainty, we tend to become more transactional due to our stress response. There are so many aspects of change that we can’t control as leaders and managers, but we can influence the quality of our relationships with others. It also impacts people’s capacity to think and to work at their best. Building a culture of connection, belonging, and collaboration is fundamental; you’re creating psychological safety and enabling the brain to feel safe. Again, there are three tweaks that we can build into our change process to help create this culture:

Activate the reward network in our brain

An easy way to do this is to ensure fairness. We can develop a set of principles about how the change process will be handled and then use them as a constant reminder. By doing this, you will help people feel part of a community by ensuring fairness.

Make time for people

This might be through get-togethers, one-to-one meetings, or meetings in small groups, but the key thing here is to listen, which is even more important during times of change. 

Help people to process and let go

This is key as all change brings a sense of loss. During change, we think more about what’s going to happen next and moving forward, however, actually helping people to sit with their sense of loss, helping them to articulate it and move through it is important. 

3. Emotion Management

Managing emotions can be really hard at the best of times and can become even more challenging during times of change. We can’t ignore our emotions; they play a huge part in who we are, how we experience life, and how we express ourselves. They also play an important part in our decision-making as they guide us to what feels right and wrong. As well as this, they shape and change our behaviour and play a central role in enhancing our memories. If we don’t manage our emotions there can be long-term detrimental consequences as we can become stressed or angry. You guessed it…here are three more strategies to help manage emotions:

Identify people who are more likely to struggle

Or, the people who are more likely to catastrophise, or take a negative view of change. Identifying these people means that you can put support in place for them and manage any message that they may be sharing more successfully. So, knowing your team and who is going to jump at change and who will take more time and struggle more is important. 

Provide practical and cathartic workshops or meetings

Providing these during the change process allows you to find out what issues people are facing and explore what you could do about it. You can use the questions: What’s the impact on you at the moment? How are things going? How can I support you? How can we support each other to be able to navigate this? 

We might not want to do this due to fear of what we might uncover, however, research and neuroscience show us that the more we have the opportunity to engage, the stronger our change muscle is going to be and our change resilience will grow. 

Use Appreciative Inquiry

This is a coaching framework that moves people towards the reward response because it looks at what’s working well, rather than what isn’t. It’s really powerful, and something you might want to explore further.


4. Feedback and learning

This is about creating a feedback-rich culture which avoids blame and judgement. As leaders, we need to model this at every opportunity. Three more tips to help you do this:

Model feedback

Ask, ‘what’s the learning for us here?’ perhaps after each activity, event, or at a weekly review. It helps to build a culture of feedback and also psychological safety. See the podcast episode 20 ‘Building a feedback rich culture’ for more information on this. 

Provide training for your teams to give and receive feedback

Feedback should always be a dialogue and not a monologue. Often, training programmes only look at how to give feedback rather than how to receive it – so make sure your teams have training on both. 

Be a leader during change

You might be unsure about how to get a person to do what you want them to. But, if you listen and think about what you could learn, what vital information might this person have to help the change efforts, or what they could that may shift thinking, it might help. Have conversations with curiosity where you are listening and learning. 

5. Decision-making

As mentioned before, in the threat state our blood flows away from the prefrontal cortex. When this happens our field of vision literally narrows and we’re less able to see what’s going on around us. As our brain likes to conserve energy, it takes shortcuts, and this can lead to bias which can massively impact our decisions. There are over 150 different kinds of biases identified, but there are three common ones in decision-making. The first is confirmation bias – we like to be right and it rewards our brain, so we unconsciously seek out information that supports what we already believe. The second bias is sunk cost – it can be hard for us to give up on something that we’ve already invested time, effort and resources into. Finally, there is projection bias – where we tend to assume that people see the world as we do and that they think like us. Here are some tweaks to support the decision-making change muscle: 

Carefully plan decision-making meetings

You could hold them earlier in the day when people have more energy. You can also limit the number of big decisions on the agenda and provide time for discussion and consideration with agreement beforehand about what the decision will be about and how it will be made. 

Mitigate bias as much as possible

You can do this by:

  • building awareness of bias in your team members
  • being open to challenge 
  • being on the alert for team members’ blind spots and each other’s 
  • priming yourself not to be biased, so you’re putting norms in place, and you’re reviewing them at the beginning of meetings
  • having somebody play devil’s advocate in the meeting
  • building a diverse decision-making team, or at the very least, bring people in from other areas to share their perspectives. 

Ask yourself as a leader, ‘how might I be wrong?’

This will allow you to always be open and help to counteract that narrow field of vision during the change process. 

6. Communication 

Communication during change is critical as our brains crave information. If we don’t have the information we feel uncomfortable, we speculate, and we fill the gap with negativity. So, put yourself in the shoes of others and think about what you want to communicate, but also what they need to hear. It’s not just about the right content, but the right tone too; know when vision, energy, and drive are needed and when greater empathy and listening would be more helpful.

Provide certainty about communication

You probably won’t have all the answers, and situations can change in times of change, but you can give certainty about when and how you will communicate. For example, you might give weekly updates at a certain time. This just helps to give people a little bit of certainty. 

Involve people in the change by holding meetings

Help people to identify what they can’t control and help them to focus on what they can. This helps with our need for autonomy. 

Use some storytelling

Talk about the journey that you’re on together, not just the final destination. Stories and metaphors about the journey are more engaging for our brains than just facts and the vision at the end of the change process. 

Communicate a mindset, not just a message

That mindset could be learning, safety, or even togetherness. 

Finally, here are some muscle-training questions for you: 

  • Which of the 6 muscles (performance, community, emotion management, feedback and learning, decision-making, and communication) are you proactively strengthening already on a regular basis, and which ones might you choose to strengthen now? 
  • Which strategies from today could you use to do this? 

Enjoy training those change muscles!