Most employees struggle with change, but leaders are in a position to significantly improve their team’s experience, foster resilience and subsequently enhance performance.
Recent neuroscience research provides strategies that leaders can use to assist their employees to maintain optimal brain fitness in the midst of change.
By building a higher level of brain fitness within their organisations, leaders can leverage the inevitable change and uncertainty within the marketplace as a competitive advantage rather than a stumbling block.
Creating safety and control
Human brains function best when we have a sense of safety and control. The uncertainty associated with rapid and constant changes in the marketplace – such as changes in legislation, globalised workforces, currency fluctuations, disruptive technologies and the like – reduce both control and safety for employees.
Frequent, multi-way communications with employees, including face-to-face conversations, not only increase alignment during times of change but also create an important foundation for building resilience to change-induced uncertainty.
The ability to communicate on both the informational and emotional level helps to build strong, trusting relationships and is the hallmark of an effective leader. Neuroscience gives us a better understanding about how this happens.
Detecting and deflecting threats
Human brains have a built-in threat-detector that quickly picks up on any change. Each and every change is assessed to determine if it presents a danger. When people feel threatened and unsafe, there are significant neurochemical and blood-flow changes that result in less brainpower (i.e. thinking capacity) being available for higher-order thinking, memory and problem-solving.
Employees gain a sense of predictability and control when leaders provide information, clarity about what to expect, and resources for dealing with the change. This reduces the anxiety and discomfort associated with uncertainty.
Given employees may have reduced capacity to ‘take-in’ new information when they are stressed, leaders should repeat and reinforce important messages through multiple channels.
Leaders can also facilitate coping by creating an opportunity for employees to express their reactions/feelings. Simply labelling emotions, either verbally or in writing, has been associated with immediate reductions in perceived stress and boosting the ability to think more clearly.
Likewise, this same labelling technique is correlated with improvements in memory, concentration and attention – prerequisites for complex problem-solving.
Labelling emotion enables people to tap into the ‘thinking’ part of the brain instead of being limited to the ‘emotional’ part, thereby creating a ‘neurological bridge’ that helps us use this information more productively.
Leaders often make the mistake of thinking they have to solve their employees’ problems or somehow rid them of their emotions. In fact, simply listening attentively demonstrates respect, compassion and provides the employee with the opportunity to begin to think more clearly about how they wish to deal with the issue at hand.
The importance of staying active
In addition to being able to label emotion, it is helpful for people to take an active role in their own coping and adjustment to change.
When stressed or feeling unsafe, many people will go into avoidance or shut-down mode. Effective leaders encourage people to take an active role in adapting to organisational changes. This can include encouraging peer support and collaborative problem-solving related to coping with change.
Leaders often either ignore losses or take on the role of ‘fixer’. Creating the conditions that give people the opportunity to use their strengths and experiences to creatively tackle challenges not only improves the likelihood of the problems being successfully solved but also builds the capability and confidence of those people most directly affected by the changes.
Many people neglect their health when under stress. Neurologically, this is the time the brain needs the most care. Ensuring that people get enough sleep, exercise, adequate nutrition and opportunities for social engagement contributes to increases in specific brain chemicals that are essential for new learning. Exercise also helps to reduce the stress hormones that can impair thinking, memory and coping.
Lessons from neuroscience
Employees are better able to cope with change and likely to build resilience for long-term coping and performance if they have accurate information, are given an opportunity and encouragement to acknowledge losses and difficulties, and have access to useful resources – including other people.
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Dr Connie Henson, the author of BrainWise Leadership, provides consultation, keynotes and designs change leadership programs informed by the latest neuroscience and leadership research through Learning Quest.