Change hurts. That’s not a metaphorical statement. Change—the hope of all innovative corporate leaders—induces a physiological reaction in the brain that results in stress, discomfort and pain.
Scientists have known that for years. The news, according to UCLA research psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz and leadership guru David Rock, is that by focusing attention on certain insights and ideas, humans—and even large, inertia-anguished companies—can combat this physical resistance to change.
When a person’s expectations are challenged, the brain fires a distress signal. But say an employee comes up with a way to cope with a new demand. Then the Aha!—the moment of insight—creates enough positive energy in the brain to counter the negative feelings about change. In leadership lingo, if employees are going to embrace change, they need to own it.
A leader’s role, according to Rock, is to help facilitate insight across the organization. But that’s not all. Individual brains are shaped by behavior. That means that in the long run, leaders who make a habit out of change can undo the hardwiring that causes brains to fight it. “If you can create in your organization a powerful expectation of change, then you can begin to create a counterbalance to these physiological reactions,” Schwartz says.
The Rock and Schwartz approach has implications for time-honored leadership techniques:
• Incentives—carrots and sticks—are ineffective at an individual level.
• Sharing your own solutions and insights with employees has limited influence on their behavior.
• Constructive criticism tends to focus too heavily on problems.
Instead, Rock recommends “constructive creationism”: asking employees how they might develop new, improved habits and how you can help them.
“Once you learn these principles, any other way of communicating is annoying,” says Rock. “You can see when you’re fighting the brain instead of harnessing its energy.”