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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.