Employee Comms

Why do we hate organizational change? Blame our brains


 — December 20th, 2016

Why do we hate organizational change? Blame our brains

Our brains are not designed to deal with the 21st-century workplace. Work practices have changed massively throughout the centuries, but our brains have not. And every organization on the planet has to contend with the challenges this brings, especially towards organizational change.

So says Hilary Scarlett, author of Neuroscience for Organizational Change and speaker at a recent IABC Dublin event, Harness the Power of the Brain, that I attended.

It is always intriguing to gain some insight into why we behave the way we do in certain situations, and why we react the way we do. Neuroscience is a fascinating subject, and applying it to the complex working world, especially the world of internal communications and employee engagement, made for a compelling talk by Hilary.

According to Hilary, our brains simply “don’t like” organizational change. Our brains are primarily concerned with survival, and see change as a threat. It’s an unfortunate concept if true, because today’s companies constantly have to change, or they find themselves left behind. Employees are expected to accept and embrace it, but the reality is often different.

Why don’t our brains like change?

“Our brains are prediction machines - they want to predict and make meaning. If they can predict, they are better able to keep us out of harm’s way.”

Significant organizational change means our brains cannot predict what is going to happen, and our brains then perceive change as a threat, according to Hilary. Threats are more impactful on the brain than rewards. When the brain believes it is under threat, the effect that threat has is huge: Adrenalin and cortisol levels increase, dopamine lowers. When we feel threatened, blood flows away from the area where we do our considered thinking and planning and managing our emotions. Threats also have a longer lasting and stronger effect than rewards.

Think of a person being told five positive things in their yearly review, and one negative thing. The negative thing, which the brain can perceive as a threat, is most likely to be the one thing that person remembers. That threat has had a greater impact than the rewards provided by the five positive things.

Hilary spoke of the vicious circle that can ensue following a period of change or ambiguity. It is perceived as a threat, which leads to distraction, anxiety, and fear, and causes a negative impact on the ability to think. It means we can start to see the work environment and colleagues in a hostile, threatening way. This then leads to poor performance. And poor performance leads to more change in the organization.

So what can employers do to ease the effects of organizational change?

SPACES: That’s the acronym Hilary uses to explain what employees need to feel motivated and engaged in their jobs. Hilary believes it’s also the acronym organizations need to remember when implementing change in their organization, in order to keep employees resilient. It stands for: Self-esteem; Purpose; Autonomy; Certainty; Equity; Social Connection.

When we lack these factors we go into a ‘threat’ state, with all its negative connotations on our ability to be productive. Change means that these elements may be threatened, so they need to be protected and nourished as much as possible.

When we have high levels of them all or most of them, we go into a very positive ‘reward’ state, which has positive effects on our work. Accordingly, high levels of these elements mean we will be more open to accepting change.

Most people find that one of the elements is more important to them than others, and it can be helpful for colleagues and managers to find out what is most important to an employee, and focus on improving those areas for that individual.

The big question, then, is what employers can do to improve these six elements for people. Below are Hillary’s suggestions:


Treat the past with respect: criticizing the past can be perceived wrongly when talking about change, and can be construed as criticizing a person
Encourage a positive mindset: Remind people how they rose to a challenge and handled it well in the past
Encourage learning and personal development (especially during times of change)
Ask people’s opinions
Trust team members to carry out tasks the manager would have done
Give praise and recognition for a job well done


Most people can deal with even very difficult and radical changes if there is a clear sense of purpose and a clear sense of the benefits. Clarify the purpose, the benefits, and the positive effects the changes will have on other people
Ensure employees have sight of the end picture, and where their work fits in


The brain likes a sense of having control. Identify what people can control
Even in the most difficult of circumstances, there are things people can control. Allow people to have some influence and say over the changes

The brain likes certainty. In many cases, bad news is better than no news. Uncertainty can be a very stressful and frustrating situation, and many people handle it badly. Certainty means people can make a plan. Be as definitive as possible at all points of organizational change
Remember: a constant drip of small unpredictable changes can cause more stress and frustration than a big, planned change programme
Break down long-term goals into goals that employees can achieve in a quick time frame
If you genuinely don’t know something, say it. Articulated uncertainty is better than unspoken uncertainty!

Our need for fairness and equal treatment is strongly rooted in us since childhood. Ensure fairness and transparency throughout the change process as much as possible.
Social Connection:

Social connection at work is often underestimated. It can be as important as personal social connections. Social rejection or exclusion can be extremely painful. Reflect and identify who is in our ‘in-group’ and who might feel on the outside.
Face to face contact is important to build ‘in groups’. We warm to people who are more familiar to us.
Our brains want us to be part of a group: co-operation with others activates the brain’s reward network. Remind people from different groups about their shared goals.

To learn more about the brain’s reaction to organizational change, see www.scarlettandgrey.com. You can buy Hilary Scarlett’s book Neuroscience for Organizational Change here: http://www.koganpage.com/product/neuroscience-for-organizational-change-9780749474881.

To learn more about improving leadership communications, download our free how-to guide here: http://signup.newsweaver.com/how-to-guide-leadership-comms

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