Business transformations and change initiatives are ultimately focused on “doing things differently.” There is a different result or approach the business needs in order to survive, and so things are changed: The strategy, organization charts, team members, leaders, work processes, physical spaces, tools, processes, cultural dynamics. All of it. It’s a lot of change.
But the place where real change and investment needs to happen, and rarely does, is in the brains of the people being asked to change. And although change is essential, the brain doesn’t like it.
It’s difficult to imagine a transformation initiative that doesn’t echo with phrases like “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” “I’ve been at this too long to change,” or “This is the way we’ve always done it.” You’ve heard them, or variations of them, and they point to a fixed mindset; a change averse perspective that en masse, can destroy your most expensive and critical change plans. To get people to change their minds, we first need to get to their brains.
So, let’s look at the heart of the matter: can the brain actually change?
The common long-standing belief has been that the brain is highly flexible in our early years, our developmental years, and that it then becomes fixed, or inflexible and not-prone-to-change as we age. While there is some truth to this, it’s a dangerous simplification.
There is no doubt that the brain is forming and building connections within itself at a staggering rate in the first 10-12 years of life. The brain then begins to enjoy the efficiencies of practice, finding shortcuts, habits, and well-worn neural pathways that make brain-work easier.
But to think that our brain becomes rigid and unchanging in adulthood is a wild miscalculation. Although the brain enjoys efficiency and so is not inclined to tax itself with additional work, it can most definitely change when presented with the right conditions.
“What recent research has shown is that under the right circumstances, the power of brain plasticity can help adults minds grow. Although certain brain machinery tends to decline with age, there are steps people can take to tap into plasticity and reinvigorate that machinery,” Dr. Michael Merzenich ~ Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life
There is ample research supporting that 1) the brain can change and 2) the brain is a social organ. Can you see where we’re going with this? It’s important not to confuse the ability of the brain with the willingness of the individual to do so. It’s all about building social astuteness on your leadership bench; those who know how to get others’ brains to lean into change will mobilize the workforce and accelerate achievement of desired results.
For some, the desire to not embark on a change-journey of some kind surpasses their desire to maintain the status quo. Because people can change, doesn’t mean they will. Enter the role of the leader.
Casting a vision, organizing a plan, and aligning a team around its execution requires leaders to equip themselves to activate the desire for change in their team. Neuroplasticity is ultimately the job of leaders.