HR transformation – the neuroscience way

As the HR function becomes increasingly involved in the business strategy, HR leaders must ensure both performance and motivation stay high. This would be a challenge at the best of times, but even more so during today’s constant change. Staff buy-in, particularly that of employees in business-facing roles, is crucial to any HR transformation.

We all know that people resist change. But does this have to be the case? The latest research from neuroscience (the understanding of how the brain works) is beginning to show us why change is painful, why it is resisted, and what we as HR leaders can do to make it easier.


What we often hear from HR leaders trying to change the way their team works within the business is that the issue is not direct resistance. At an intellectual level, people agree with the proposition that HR is there to work strategically to achieve the people aspects of the business plan. But what we hear time and time again is that in spite of this, people revert back to their old ways of working or even fail from the outset to make the shift to the new job description and competency model. Coaching from HR leaders has little impact.

HR business partners in particular tend to complain that their line clients actually support their continued role in transactional tasks, and that this is frustrating, as these tasks take up time and keep them away from more strategic work. Many HR leaders have in vain provided incentives to adopt the new behaviours, including coaching, mentoring and financial rewards. Business partners often tell us they can see the new ways of working should be intrinsically satisfying and good for their career. So there is no logical reason for them to continue working in the old way.

But before we make judgements, reflect on when you personally may have resisted change. We have all done this at some time, even when logically we know it makes no sense. But this makes sense when we look at the results of neuroscientific research into how the brain works – developments in technology have allowed scientists to literally see how the brain deals with change.


Change reaction

This research is beginning to show from a scientific point of view why change is so painful, and give indications of how we as HR leaders can make it less so. It shows that people’s response to change is pretty common, dispelling the myth that some people are better able to cope with it than others. We all react to change at a biological level in the same way. Change is painful at a physical level. It activates the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain often called the executive area. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for goal setting, decision making and planning, but also for error detection.

Change is a form of error detection. Our brain responds to and encourages us to create patterns and regular ways of doing things. These patterns act as a short cut, so for instance you don’t have to work out how to do something like open a door afresh every time. In addition, these types of routine or regular activities are run by the basal ganglia, which is much more efficient in terms of energy usage

After a period of time, our job becomes one of these regular actions. We get comfortable doing the transactional tasks, and the role becomes predictable. Doing something different to the norm is the equivalent of telling the brain something is wrong. This activates the emotional centre, the amygdale, which controls our ‘fight or flight’ response. The new behaviour is registered as an error, and hence a potential threat to the brain. While the prefrontal cortex can override the more primitive emotional centre, this takes a lot of energy and it soon becomes fatigued.

Unfortunately, traditional change management approaches are not compatible with this new understanding of the brain’s functioning. Bonuses and incentives or threats of job loss or sidelining to less strategic roles will not overcome the biological reaction to change.

Mindful approach

The approach to change also often relies on simply telling people to adopt the new behaviour, or assuming they will just adapt once they see the logical sense of the new approach. But this approach creates warning messages in the prefrontal cortex. The way to get past the prefrontal cortex threat response is to help people to decide for themselves that the new approach is what they want.

At Orion Partners we have been working with organisations to adopt a brain-friendly approach to change. We call this the HR Leaders Change Charter.

The charter encourages leaders to help people recognise the benefits of the change for themselves by:

  • Encouraging them to generate their own ways of working within the broad strategy
  • Providing training and workshops which allow people to build on their existing skills and to develop greater flexibility
  • Involving people in the design of the strategy and ways of working
  • Helping people to be solution-focused rather than problem-focused
  • Encouraging personal insight through the use of good questions.

This type of approach can seem long-winded and lacking in control, but the results are much more likely to deliver a higher uptake of the change required, with less personal pain and organisational resistance.

Jan Hills, partner, Orion Partners

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