The global pandemic has driven unprecedented change that will unfold for years. Learning professionals have already helped their organizations through waves of change, but more are yet to come as people reunite and reimagine how work gets done.

Given that people naturally resist change, this imperative is no small undertaking. People’s resistance has manifested as exhaustion and anxiety. Shifting to survival mode and online work has taken a toll on employees, who feel the strain of trying to connect and collaborate with colleagues from afar. The likely return to office spaces doesn’t necessarily ease worries, especially as workers now favor hybrid work and are willing to seek it elsewhere.

The good news is that humans are wired to survive challenging circumstances and grow to become their best selves. With that in mind, learning professionals are uniquely positioned to help their organizations give people the skills needed to adapt and thrive. By understanding the human brain, learning leaders can help their organizations drive meaningful behavioral change.

How the Brain Gets Activated by Change

Change is a journey, not an event. The reason 50-70% of change initiatives fail is that typical approaches to managing change don’t take into account human biology and that people are wired to resist change. But once learning professionals understand the four brain structures activated by change, they can mitigate their effects, increasing people’s adaptability and resilience.

The Amygdala Sees Change as Potential Danger

Connected to all major sensory nerves, the amygdala is designed to detect threats and launch the fight-flight-freeze response to help people survive. It is constantly scanning the environment looking for any change that signals an impending threat. Biologically wired to see any change as potentially threatening, people will assume the worst until shown otherwise. The survival instinct is so strong that people are influenced by other people’s fear. In organizations, a few people spreading “doom and gloom” perspectives can amp up the entire group’s fear and distress.

Changing Locations or Teams Activates the Entorhinal Cortex

The entorhinal cortex serves as our internal GPS, making mental maps of physical surroundings and social networks to help people successfully navigate them. Many workplace changes, like new workstations or office layouts, disrupt employees’ mental maps. The same is true when people’s professional networks are affected by change like an M&A or reorganization. People invest in developing professional relationships, building trust and rapport over time. Many change initiatives erase the results of that effort, forcing people to start over and experience mental and physical fatigue as the brain makes those updates.

The Basal Ganglia Turns New Behaviors into Habits

The basal ganglia is responsible for turning frequent behaviors into habits. It shifts the activity from requiring concentration to something people can do on autopilot. On average, it takes 40-50 repetitions of a new behavior to form a habit. Change initiatives usually require employees to shift from well-developed habit loops to new behaviors that are awkward and uncomfortable. Simply put, people must concentrate until they sufficiently learn the new cues and routines, which takes time and energy. Often, organizations ask people to go through a change without giving them the support or time needed to build those repetitions.

The Habenula Can Drive Reluctance for Future Change

The habenula controls decision-making and actions using chemical guardrails to moderate behavior. When a person does something right – like successfully completing a project – the brain releases the “feel-good” chemicals dopamine and serotonin as a reward. When a person makes a poor choice, the habenula restricts the flow of those chemicals, eliciting a bad feeling. It suppresses motivation and nudges the person away from the source of the failure. Because most change initiatives fail on some level – think over-budget or behind schedule – people become more reluctant to embrace change over time, which can ultimately impact the organization’s ability to hit its strategic goals.

Change Fatigue

Change fatigue is the lingering mental and physical tiredness people feel when they cannot keep up with the pace or volume of change coming their way. Overlapping changes – such as continual adjustments to the pandemic – strain someone’s ability to successfully cope. Signs of change fatigue in the workplace include disengagement, exhaustion, absenteeism, confusion, conflict and cynicism.

Organizations commonly see a decline in performance, even among top performers. Because the human body cannot sustain unending change, employees often disengage since caring less about their job and workplace means they don’t feel as affected by it. Employees also learn how to “play the change game” by looking like they are participating without truly expending much energy. In turn, leaders mistakenly believe change is happening.

Proven Ways to Enhance Employee Adaptability

Given all the ways the brain affects how people cope with change, it’s smart to develop strategies that account for those natural responses. The following strategies can be applied in different combinations during times of change.

Map Out the What and Why

Employees are much more likely to reach the desired destination when they understand where they’re going and why.

  • Explain the change and reason for it. Knowing the “why” helps the amygdala perceive change as less threatening and helps employees anticipate potential gains in the future. The more they understand the purpose and personal benefits, the sooner employees can shift their focus.
  • Explain how the organization will arrive at the destination. Include milestones and signposts along the way to help people stay on track and feel a sense of progress and accomplishment. Taking the entorhinal cortex into account, create visual maps of places and people to address impacts on the physical workspace and social networks.
  • Explain the habits and behaviors employees need to change. Get specific about what employees should do and say. Use learning events to give people the opportunity to practice and build up to the needed 40-50 repetitions.

Motivate with Recognition and Rewards

Motivation is important for combatting the brain’s natural resistance to change, helping address the various emotions that are part of the transition.

  • Center on purpose. People are motivated by three things: Purpose, autonomy (the ability to be self-directed) and mastery (the opportunity to get better at things), according to Dan Pink’s book Drive. Since autonomy and mastery can be threatened during change, it’s even more important to connect change to a larger purpose.
  • Shift from goals to problem-solving. Most change plans rarely unfold as expected, leading to a series of failures. To avoid this, frame each phase of the initiative as an exercise in problem-solving, allowing employees to be active participants. By activating the reward-seeking part of the brain, each solution to a problem translates to success.
  • Recognize effort and progress. Communicating and celebrating progress gives employees a boost and is especially helpful for those who are resistant to change. The more their effort is rewarded — whether with high fives, encouragement like “Good job!”, or prizes — the more quickly their brains will adapt to change. Plus, the brain sees rewards as part of the habit loop, encouraging it to replicate the behavior

Foster a Culture of Trust and Empathy

Because change can be a disruptive and difficult process that triggers worry, anxiety and fear — and moving through change requires risk-taking and vulnerability — building a team culture of trust and empathy is key.

  • Start with empathy. Since the transition aspect of change is so emotional, empathy is critical. While it can be challenging to identify with others’ feelings of anxiety, frustration, and fear, leaders can learn to show empathy in meaningful ways.
  • Create psychological safety. Harvard researcher Dr. Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up with questions, concerns or mistakes. It is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” As such, it allows for vulnerability and builds trust.
  • Empower social connections. Since change can impact the social maps built by the brain, identify when and where people’s social connections are likely to be new, strained or erased. Help build them up quickly by creating social experiences in a relaxed setting, or through formal team-building exercises.
  • Practice patience. Patience is crucial when leading change. Leaders should find ways to stay grounded, maintain a sense of humor, and coach and support each other.

Change comes in all forms, from the small and annoying to massive shifts triggered by a global pandemic. By understanding the human brain, learning professionals can help their organizations drive real behavior change that paves the way for enhanced adaptability and a thriving workplace.