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How to get your organisation’s brains change-ready

Anybody who’s made new year’s resolutions earlier this month will know how hard it is to stick to the goal/s you’ve set for yourself because … changing one’s own behaviour is hard. And guess what, changing other people’s behaviour is even harder. Changing the behaviour of a group of people – well that sometimes appears to be almost impossible!

Yet talk to leaders in organisations (large or small) and most of them will say that they are trying to go through some form of change initiative – be it culture change, a digital transformation or an organisational restructure. All of them require some behavioural change within the individuals involved. Taking into account that behavioural change is so hard it’s not surprising to hear that 70% of change initiatives fail.

If you don’t want yours to be one of them, you might want to read on at this point! Because, as David Rock points out in Your Brain at Work, if you find out what makes us humans tick, it really isn’t rocket science to help make change happen.

If you have spoken to me recently, you will know that I have read and re-read David Rock’s book and some of his other ground-breaking work and have been recommending it far and wide! I will attempt to summarise his findings on culture change here.

It’s no surprise that David Rock dismisses the carrot-and-stick approach that draws from a field called behaviourism. Whilst it works with animals and small children, numerous studies have shown that this approach doesn’t work with adults. Unfortunately, it’s still the dominant way of thinking about motivation in society at large. Why do we still believe in this model, you might wonder?

One reason might be its allure of simplicity. With just two ideas to remember, behaviourism appears irresistibly ‘certain’.

The power is in the focus

What David Rock proposes instead is to pay attention to attention itself. Let me explain … paying close attention to an idea, to an activity or an experience helps create networks in the brain that can stay with you, wired together, sometimes forever.

A study by research psychiatrist Dr Jeffrey Schwartz showed that changing the way you pay attention to something can change the circuitry of the brain not just over months, but even within a few weeks, enough to show up on a brain scan. We now know that the brain is mutable (called neuroplasticity), it changes all the time, a disconcerting amount in fact. So, whilst it’s not hard to change your brain itself, it takes effort to focus your attention in new ways (what is called self-directed neuroplasticity).

So how do you facilitate self-directed neuroplasticity on a large scale, such as a change program in your organisation? For humans like you and me, there appears to be three essential ingredients for this kind of change to be successful.

  1. A safe environment – create a safe environment so that any threat response in the brain is minimised

If you’re familiar with Rock’s SCARF model, go to point 2, otherwise read on…


Neuroscientists from all over the globe have found that if people’s minds aren’t at ease, focusing their attention on goals, change or new behaviours is an uphill struggle. In recent years, psychological safety has been in the headlines a lot. A great way to provide a sense of safety in the brain is to offer the brain a reward to counteract the threat. We already know that external rewards such as a monetary reward have limited use. What you could do at work is offer a reward of increase in status (The ‘S’ in the SCARF model). In the workplace, you could increase people’s status by publicly recognising them and their importance in a change initiative. David Rock says,

The positive reward from positive public recognition can resonate with people for years.

As for certainty (the ‘C’ in SCARF), you could reward somebody by giving them access to more information, eg why a change is coming, the business reasons and data behind it, the change roadmap etc. People feel much more certain if they have information about what is going on which puts their minds at ease which in turn enables them to be better thinkers and problem solvers.

To heighten the sense of autonomy, you could empower employees to make more decisions relating to the change through delegation, or how, where and when they work, or by giving them a range of projects to choose from, or by simply asking them, ‘Is it ok with you if we focus on this right now?’

To increase relatedness, you could provide people with more opportunities to connect and network, for instance with culture change champions who you might choose to appoint as early adopters of the change, or by allowing people to attend more meetings and activities related to the change. Or maybe another organisation has already successfully implemented a similar change and could provide some best practice.

Finally, to increase a sense of fairness in a change situation, you could make sure that everybody gets vital information at the same time or that managers deal with individuals in their teams in an equal way or you might want to point out to people that you have had the same conversation with everyone else in the team, too. David Rock says:

As you lay all this out, the alarm bells in people’s heads start to quiet down, which increases the chances of focusing people’s attention in the direction you want.

  1. A story or a question or two – help others focus their attention in just the right ways to create just the right new connections

Once you have people’s attention, next you want to help them focus it in just the right ways. Rock says,

There is an upside to the fact that attention is easily distracted: it’s not that hard to distract people from other thoughts and focus them on something new.

A common strategy people use it to tell a story. A great story can create complex maps in the brain as people will hold different characters and events centre stage: if you have attended any of my workshops you will know that I regularly tell stories, and I’m always amazed at how, sometimes months later, people quote that same story back to me.

Another way to focus attention is to simply ask people the right questions and to give them a gap to close. The brain is keen to close gaps especially if it doesn’t take too much effort. So, imagine, your desired change might be to create a workforce that is more customer focused. You could ask people:

  • What is one thing you have done that has made a customer delighted in the past 6 months?
  • What did you do differently that made the customer happy?
  • What would it take for you to do this more often?

These three simple questions could change the behaviour of a group of people more than any long monologue about the challenges of customer service. The questions don’t imply a specific answer but allow people to have their own insights.

Once you have been successful with points 1 and 2, it’s important to …

  1. Repeat, repeat, repeat – to keep any new circuits alive, get people’s brains coming back to pay attention to their new circuits 

For a change effort to be successful you want to ensure that people come back to pay attention to their new circuits regularly. Real change requires repetition, tons of it in fact!

One of the best ways to make that happen in an organisation is for people to collaborate. The brain is eminently social, so every process that has been created through collaboration, every system installed by people working together, and every technology that is used by people, has the potential to reinforce a culture. All you will need to do is to regularly revisit them, re-implement them and polish them to make them even better.

Most importantly, keep in mind to share your thoughts and talk about them regularly. Ideas, and brain circuits, come alive in conversation.

Katrin Homer