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Does your Brain Get in the Way of Change Management?

A conversation with a business associate about the brain had me thinking about how our own minds impact change. Change is constant. So much so, there are countless songs that talk about change:

  • “When it’s Time to Change, You Have to Rearrange.” The Brady Bunch

  • “Times They are a-Changin’” Bob Dylan

  • “Waiting on the World to Change” John Mayer

(Yes, I did shamelessly reference The Brady Bunch as actual singers). We have lived through changing norms through most of 2020, much of which disrupted the way we shop, conduct business, and function daily.

Change is necessary. Change can be beneficial. At the organizational level, change happens for many reasons. New ownership, entry into a new market, a shift in the economy. 62% of organizations have dealt with transformational change – a change in organizational strategy in the last 3 years (TD, 2020).

It is the role of a leader to help their organization, team, and employees navigate organizational change. Change can disrupt cultural norms, both good and bad. Change and organizational shifts are times when employees are often scared, concerned, and looking for answers.

54% of organizations surveyed for the Change Enablement Survey by the Association for Talent Development, stated that their organizations were only moderately successful at navigating change in their organization.

Most of us are creatures of habit. We like routine and don’t like it when someone “moves our cheese.” There is more to approaching organizational change than the development of a strategic plan and distributing that plan. Your team has to have buy-in. Leaders have to negate fear and concern from their employees. One could argue that much of what happens to make change happen, is in our head.

Nick Dowling wrote an article in 2014 that explored how brain science can play a role in change management practices. That we all have the ability to change our own “neuroplasticity” – the ability the brain has to change connections and behaviors in response to new information ( How can a little neuroscience and a little “brainpower” impact organizational priorities during times of change?

Transparency and communication. Many times those employees expected to carry out changes to processes are the last to know anything about it. Leaders should be transparent and open about change. In my experience with organizational change, when it is abrupt and in secret, employees become resentful and fearful. It is a natural response to fear change. The more that change can be communicated to employees and the more all those impacted can be involved in the change initiatives directly helps to create buy-in and build a shared vision. From a neuroscience perspective, Nick refers to this as “Self Directed Neuroplasticity” (Training Journal, 48). For short, when one takes ownership of a solution, they are more likely to act (ie: the brain will create a new pathway.

Leaders need to model the change. How many employees know what is meant by the phrase “do as I say, not as I do?” Probably too many to count. 32% of organizations said that leaders did not model change during times of organizational shift. Old mental models (ie: bias) can also hinder new ideas and can challenge new ways of thinking. Leaders should recognize that change is equally as difficult for them as it is for their teams, be vulnerable with your team. Work with your team to create action steps together to break through established habits and mental models.

Psychological safety. Safety is basic for most people. When people, whether employees or not, feel unsafe, all other tasks are pushed aside. Psychological safety is “the belief that one will not be humiliated or punished for sharing information, ideas, or making mistakes (A. Edmondson).” If employees or team members do not feel safe to express their ideas or concerns, or fear retaliation, an organization can forget productivity, profit, and anything else. Leaders must foster an environment where employees feel safe to express concerns and ideas. Psychological safety fosters an environment of trust, safety, and allows creativity to grow.

Sharing a vision. Stakeholders and leaders need to get employee buy-in about the organization’s vision. Employees need a clear understanding of the vision. Employees should be involved in creating a shared vision. A shared vision builds loyalty and helps the organizational team work as one. Leaders also need to live the vision and to help foster the new organizational culture. This creates a community of practice where leaders and their team can come together for a greater cause.

Have you been a part of an organizational change during your career? What went well? What not so well? I would love to hear from you.

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  • Change Enablement: Skills for Addressing Change, Association for Talent Development, 2020

  • The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge, 2006

  • Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Amy Edmondson, 2012


  • Nick Dowling, Change Management,, August 2014

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