How much does change really hurt?

Have you ever wondered why we respond negatively to change in some instances, yet bring it on at other times? If we wholeheartedly didn’t like change, would we be the most adaptable species on the planet? Why did we bother to venture out of the trees, walk upright and eventually manipulate many aspects of our natural environment? Yet, we resist the introduction of a new system or organisational restructure at work.

The answer, according to neuroscientists, lies in whether we perceive the change or new information as a threat or a reward. Our primal response is to avoid loss or run away from threat, and move towards reward or gain. The threat response triggers the same activity in our brains as when we experience physical pain.  So, when we don’t like change, it does really hurt!

Loss equates to threat

Our response to loss is elegantly expressed in David Rock’s SCARF model of threat and reward. When an element in SCARF is reduced or taken away, our brain activates a threat response.  If we perceive it as a gain, we activate a reward response. 

Here’s what SCARF stands for:

Status Our hardwired social need for esteem and respect, and about our relative importance to others.
Certainty Our ability to predict what will happen next. When the situation is unfamiliar, trying to make sense of it takes more neural energy.
Autonomy Our sense of control over events and the opportunity to make choices.
Relatedness The level of comfort and safety we feel with others. We’re hardwired to classify people quickly as either friend or foe.
Fairness A perception of fair exchanges between people.

Okay so models are great in theory, but how can we use this information in practical way in an organisation? I often facilitate sessions for teams about to experience change, particularly organisational change. After a brief introduction to Rock’s SCARF model, and how change is new normal these days, we typically brainstorm how they felt impacted by each SCARF element.  To capture this, I developed a self-assessment tool (see sample below) for team members to plot how they felt on a SCARF threat/reward scale. We then collate each team member’s rating on a flipchart sheet to see a picture of the extent of the team’s pain points by each SCARF element. This helps them to label their feelings through awareness and drives a productive discussion on how they will manage the challenges ahead as a group.

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We can also apply the SCARF model as a framework for planning and delivering change. For example, we can assess the anticipated threat response of each stakeholder for each element of SCARF, educate our change champions on how it plays out, and in consider it how we frame our communication, train and generally prepare people for changes.

So what does this mean for leaders?

As disruption continues to demand unprecedented agility to remain competitive, insights such as these, from neuroscience, offer organisations a clear value proposition. The application of these findings can only improve business success. Minimising threat means a more engaged workforce. And we know engaged workers are more productive and less resistant to change, so business benefits can be realised faster from transformation efforts.

These new insights challenge our existing practices and encourage us to look at things with a fresh perspective. What we now know about our hardwired responses to threat (change and potential change) means it’s time to review leadership and change practices, how we frame communication, engage our stakeholders, along with our overall change experiments. It provokes us to think harder about how to reduce the “pain” our people experience when introduced to change.

And now that we can observe and measure neural activity responses to new information and events, we can confidently re-position the “soft science” of change management as a hard one.

Find out a little more about new insights from brain science and how to apply it in your practice, in my white papers here.

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