Use Brain Science to Drive Change

Neuroscience findings on how to impact a person’s ability to adapt and change can be a powerful tool for managers trying to implement change. Here are two applications and examples of how companies applied concepts from brain science research to their change initiatives:

Unlearning is different from learning. What brain science tells us is that people must first “unlearn” in order to “relearn.” It also tells us that the resistance that most change management processes try to avoid is actually necessary to rewire our brains and change how we respond. By creating predictably around resistance and equipping people with new responses to change, the process becomes simple, seamless and quick.

The experience of snack manufacturer Snyder’s-Lance Inc. illustrates how this can be applied to a major change initiative. The company’s CEO initiated a major organizational change to move from a more traditional, top-down culture to a servant-leadership culture. A 180-degree, value-based change proved difficult as the management team had been in place under the old structure for decades. Some managers bluntly refused to change. The company’s director of manufacturing felt it was important that all managers were on board. The goal was for direct reports and indirect internal clients of specific managers to notice changes in managers’ behavior to include attentive listening, caring and improved results through the development of people. They focused on senior managers and employed a change effort that utilized neuroscience concepts and a diagnostic process that included an assessment of basic response patterns.

Taking unlearning into account means predicting and pre-empting resistance by identifying not just the way people respond to a new culture, but also the way people will resist as part of unlearning. Snyder’s-Lance zeroed in on the ways managers were expressing resistance and encouraged it early in the process to help them “unlearn” the response patterns that were prohibiting them from accepting the new cultural requirements. The consultant and top management identified the response patterns that were getting in the way, and those that were required by the organization to be able to quickly understand and embrace the values of the desired culture. With guidance and facilitation, managers were able to practice, acquire and sustain new ways of thinking.

Acquisition is experience based. The most important component necessary for people to acquire new responses and execute differently is experience. If a team needs to acquire a new skill, develop a new habit or learn to respond differently to a strategic initiative, people need to gain relevant experience. The brain, it turns out, does not define everything we do as experience. If people mimic or follow someone else’s instructions without initiating action or devoting deliberate attention, the brain will not register that as experience. On the other hand, if individuals attach intention and attention to someone else’s actions, the brain registers that situation as if it is personal experience. Designing change efforts without taking this new information into account reduces the likelihood that change can be predictable.

Implementing experience-based change means shifting the external focus to an internal focus. Instead of focusing on explaining to people what the desired end result should look like, which behaviors are expected of them or providing them with clarity and logic, experience-based change gets people to initiate and reinforce relevant experiences themselves. Though counterintuitive at times, brain science tells us that if managers initiate experience for people, needed changes are either not implemented or don’t last.

Altisap, a medium-sized software company, implemented an experience-based change effort with its leadership team. The CEO was eager to get his team of top performers to be more assertive and consistent, both with clients and internally. Specifically, he needed his sales and leadership team to execute on agreed improvements, with the result of increased sales. The team overpromised to please clients and found it difficult to hold each other accountable. The biggest issue was their inability to move beyond talking about what needed to change. Once they finally grasped that talking about change, understanding its rationale, having a clear implementation plan and outlining best practices does not guarantee implementation, they could shift into doing.

Altisap ultimately succeeded by having the team focus on why they weren’t implementing versus further understanding the problem. Each week they set a specific goal for the team to experience doing something differently than they had in the past. Each weekly experience-based goal moved them forward in change implementation. They held the team accountable for initiating the right change by providing them with an effective experience-based feedback loop that resulted in sustainable changes in people’s emotional and cognitive response patterns. As a result, key tasks became more important and the organizational focus shifted to one of getting things done, holding each other accountable and developing effective relationships with clients.

Reut Schwartz–Hebron is the founder of Key Change Institute and author of The Art and Science of Changing People Who Don’t Want to Change. She can be reached at