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Updated Nov 02, 2023

The Psychology of Organizational Change: How Neuroscience Can Help Leaders

Enact meaningful change in your organization using neuroscience-backed methods.

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Jennifer Dublino, Senior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
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In most organizations, there comes a time when changes to workplace culture, operations and performance are necessary. Circumstances like a merger or new ownership may even force changes.

Large-scale organizational change can be extremely challenging for leadership and team members alike. After all, businesses are composed of many different individuals, many of whom have been performing tasks and running operations in the same way for years — even decades. People have work-related habits and attitudes that have been reinforced until they have become ingrained and instinctual. 

So, how can you enact meaningful change in your organization, given the built-in reluctance of tens, hundreds or even thousands of employees? Neuroscience may have ways to help you accomplish this arduous task.

Did You Know?Did you know
Employees can make or break business success, so getting them on board with workplace culture and operational method changes is crucial.

What is neuroscience? 

Neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system. Behavioral neuroscience is a subset that examines the brain and how it affects individual perception, emotion, memory, decision-making and behavior. 

Most instinctual human reactions are based on evolutionary needs, such as the need to belong, the desire to be dominant — or not be dominated — by others, and the fight-or-flight response. These survival-based needs and reactions are related to and reinforced by the brain and the hormones it produces in the body.

How does neuroscience affect leaders?

When managers understand how employees’ attitudes, beliefs and perceptions affect their thinking and behavior, they can learn to get their employees on board with necessary organizational change.

Neuromarketing insights can help managers navigate employee interactions, opinions and behaviors in areas like the following:

  • Discovering what motivates employees to behave a certain way 
  • Uncovering why employees react to stimuli in a specific manner
  • Identifying what will motivate employees to change their behavior to align with the organization’s new goals
  • The best ways to communicate necessary organizational change to employees
  • How to implement policies that support and reinforce the new behaviors
  • How executives and managers can shift their behavior to support and reinforce the new goals and influence employees to do the same
  • What to look for in the hiring process to ensure new hires fit the company culture
TipBottom line
Work on building and improving manager-employee relationships before implementing significant changes in your workforce or operations. When trust is already established, change is easier.

How can leaders use neuroscience to influence employees?

If you find you need to change your workplace culture, boost customer satisfaction or otherwise improve your organization’s performance, consider the following neuroscience-backed methods to help get employees on board.

Give compelling reasons for the change.

The brain is biologically prone to resist change because our ancestors relied on social belonging for survival. Anything that shakes up the existing social structure feels threatening, and the instinct is to resist those changes.

However, if leaders can present employees with valid and compelling reasons for the change — especially reasons that benefit employees — it minimizes the perception of threat and allows them to see the change as in their best interests. For example, if you’re planning an office relocation, focus on the potential upsides for your employees, like shorter commute times, better perks and larger office spaces.

Make sure the proposed changes are broadly in line with employee values. It’s been well established in psychological research that when people find that their beliefs are inconsistent with their actions, a distressing mental state called cognitive dissonance arises. On the other hand, when people believe in a change’s overall purpose and feel that it aligns with their lives and values, they’ll be more inclined to change their individual behaviors.

Recognize and reduce employee stress.

Team members who frequently feel high workplace stress levels tend to have increased employee absenteeism, higher burnout rates and lower productivity. This stress can give them a negative association with their workplace. 

When people are stressed, the brain releases the hormone cortisol, which causes a faster heartbeat and breathing. Over time, elevated stress levels wear down biological systems, leading to fatigue and poor health. Stressed employees are unlikely to have the motivation, patience or energy to change their processes and habits.

Leaders should understand that change is stressful for employees because they may be unsure about their job security, workload and working conditions. Approach employees with the understanding that the transition may be stressful and emphasize that the company and management will do whatever possible to alleviate the stress related to the change.

Ask for feedback.

Employees don’t react well when leaders present new procedures as a “take it or leave it” situation. This attitude can make employees feel as if management is asserting dominance over them, much like a dominant lion intimidates its opponents into submission. The employee may react with anger and push back, protest, quit or refuse to comply with the new way of doing things. 

Instead, present organizational changes as new ways to help achieve specific goals. It’s crucial to ask for employee input in these situations. In addition to gaining valuable insight into what’s working and what isn’t, asking for feedback removes the confrontational nature of having something forcefully imposed on the employees.

TipBottom line
Consider asking for anonymous employee feedback to encourage employees to share their honest opinions without being concerned about potential repercussions.

Reinforce and reward.

Once employees have made even incremental changes, leaders should acknowledge this both one-on-one and in group settings. Because change can be so complex and jarring, employees may still have reservations even if they’ve done as you’ve asked. A new way of doing things can conflict with already established patterns and cause distress even if they comply. 

Ensure you help employees feel appreciated and reward them through praise and individual and group recognition. Thank them and share how their efforts are making a difference in achieving specific company goals. Where appropriate, consider giving employee bonuses or nonmonetary rewards, like a department pizza party.

When a company’s goals for new behavior are not appreciated and reinforced, employees are less likely to adhere to the new system. 

Take a scientific approach to organizational change

It is possible to change employee behavior to implement necessary organizational changes. However, without a nuanced understanding of how people’s brains react to various situations and stimuli, organizational change initiatives will likely falter or fail. 

A top-down, “my way or the highway” approach won’t work. Instead, focus on respectful communication and giving compelling reasons for the change. Empathize with your team and show that you recognize change is stressful and takes time. Be sure to elicit feedback and reward success.

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Jennifer Dublino, Senior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
Jennifer Dublino is an experienced entrepreneur and astute marketing strategist. With over three decades of industry experience, she has been a guiding force for many businesses, offering invaluable expertise in market research, strategic planning, budget allocation, lead generation and beyond. Earlier in her career, Dublino established, nurtured and successfully sold her own marketing firm. Dublino, who has a bachelor's degree in business administration and an MBA in marketing and finance, also served as the chief operating officer of the Scent Marketing Institute, showcasing her ability to navigate diverse sectors within the marketing landscape. Over the years, Dublino has amassed a comprehensive understanding of business operations across a wide array of areas, ranging from credit card processing to compensation management. Her insights and expertise have earned her recognition, with her contributions quoted in reputable publications such as Reuters, Adweek, AdAge and others.
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