The NeuroLeadership Institute has identified Facilitating Change as the final skill set that leaders need to develop in order to be effective and efficient: they must be able to enact change initiatives in an successful and non-threatening manner. Unfortunately, organizational change is challenging. Even under the best of circumstances, overall success rates are at about 30% (McKinsey Quarterly 2010) due to the tough task of maintaining employee engagement and motivation in the midst of organizational uncertainty.

Being able to properly Facilitate Change combines many of the skills previously seen in the other areas of effective leadership: Making Decisions, Collaborating with Others, and Self Regulation. In order for leaders and managers to lead change initiatives powerfully and with minimal disruption, they must be able to better understand and manage their own reactions to change from a brain-based perspective, as well as facilitate high-quality conversations about organizational changes with employees to maximize employee engagement and motivation.

Leaders must be able to understand the following:

  • How and why change is hard at a biological level
  • How to turn overwhelming threats into manageable threats
  • How to help others see the future in the face of change and potential threat
  • How to regulate their own and others emotions effectively
  • How to have tough conversations in a brain-friendly way
  • How to maintain Attention, Generation of emotion, and Spacing to maximize engagement and learning

An understanding of these principles equips them with tools to lead restructures (both strategic and organizational), deal with conflict, and focus the team. They must be able to create a “toward” state to help people feel safe enough to think about the future, facilitate new connections to help people think in new ways, and embed new neural wiring to help people develop new habits.

In an attempt to comprehensively reconcile the above skill sets, leaders can systemize them into the following milestones when facilitating change initiatives:

  1. Set the direction and start conversations about what’s ahead.
  2. Get into it and turn strategy into action.
  3. Work through challenges and have hard conversations.
  4. Implement the change and have even harder conversations.
  5. Engage the change and move your team ahead.

In order to set the direction, leaders must help people feel safe enough to think about the future by creating a “toward” state. The brain’s organizing principle – to minimize threat (avoid) and maximize reward (toward) – must be understood in the context of organizational change to gain a better understanding of how difficult change can be for individuals. Leaders must know how to help themselves and others get into a more positive mental state (toward state) so that they can counteract the uncertainty and fear that results from change initiatives and, instead, engage cognitive resources for more effective problem solving, creativity, collaboration, and innovation. The SCARF model (Rock 2008), in particular, is an important tool to help leaders and their direct reports feel safe enough to have productive conversations about the future and next steps.

Second, having a working knowledge of how to map the flow of change conversations in a way that helps facilitate insight in others is important for turning strategy into action. The goal is for leaders to be able to help employees think in new ways when faced with challenging situations or problems rather than simply “telling” direct reports the answers. Skills such as asking for permission, providing a clear context for the conversation, and engaging the employee through skillful questioning can address SCARF domains as well as keep the conversation focused on solutions to minimize activation of strong emotions that can result from a problem-focused approach.

Third, emotion regulation strategies are integral to working through challenges when executing change initiatives. As mentioned above, the dynamics of change can result in employees feeling quite threatened and resistant – just when the organization most needs creativity and great decision-making from its employees. Unfortunately, stronger emotions have a significant impact on higher-level cognitive processes: we rely on automatic responses, take in less information from external stimuli, and err on the side of pessimism (Whiting, Jones, Rock, and Bendit 2015). The NeuroLeadership Institute places emphasis on emotion regulation techniques such as labeling, reappraisal, and direct experience (the ability to be fully present in the moment).

Fourth, leaders must be able to implement the change by facilitating conversations in a way that generates actions to embed the new behaviors as habits. In change initiatives, teams are often asked to work toward goals that are new to them – ones for which they do not have existing brain maps to rely on. However, learning through insight is more memorable than noninsight so new networks are created in the brain that help team members see a situation in a totally new way. This helps team members stay focused on what’s next by framing the change initiatives as a result of their own insights. New neural networks are produced, hence buy-in and support of the change are more likely to happen.

Fifth, leaders must be able to move their teams ahead by helping them develop these new habits and deepen their new learning. When leaders give authentic positive feedback to team members, they are highlighting the behaviors they want to see more of. Acknowledgment is a way of reinforcing the new neural wiring and maps for that person and cuing the brain to “do more of that action.”  Acknowledging how team members are growing, learning, and challenging themselves also supports a growth mindset that drives engagement and improved performance.

Being able to implement these milestones when facilitating change initiatives can be significantly effective for both leaders and their team members in the midst of a difficult organizational change situation. Leaders must be able to combine multiple facets of the four areas of effective leadership – Making DecisionsSelf Regulation, and Collaborating with Others – by focusing on creating “toward” states, facilitating insights, managing emotions, and embedding new neural wiring in their team members. Only then can they lead the organizational change powerfully and minimize the disruption of change.

Interested in learning more about Why Proposed Changes Do Not Always Stick? Stay tuned for my next blog post!

How do YOU want to thrive?