Change Management Strategy: How Sensitive Is Your Brain To Change

This week, Martin Turnbull, an independent learning and development consultant based in Brisbane and a graduate of the Diploma of the Neuroscience of Leadership, looks at how the human brain responds to change and why making a change can be so difficult.

Image credit: RG Daniel

When it comes to organisational change, we like to think of change as beneficial. We strive to embrace the new way of doing business, and actively encourage colleagues and staff to do so as well. Unfortunately, many tend to reject change outright. In general, this happens because of the internal stress and anxiety triggered by uncertainty: we worry about how change might affect our comfortable, predictable world, and this makes us resistant.

Evidence from neuroscience and psychology studies reveals that our view of the world depends on a combination of the common way our brains have evolved and the growth of unique neural networks influenced by inherited traits, environmental factors, and our experiences. This unique combination gives rise to substantial behavioural differences — even among individuals from the same environment who experience the same events.

This insight is important for leaders who are embarking on organisational change. A key element in any organisational change process is communicating requirements to those who will be affected. Looking at this through a neuroscience lens, we see that, at the physical level, change messages are received by sensory inputs, passing through the central nervous system to the brain to be decoded and acted on. One of the first areas to receive sensory signals is the limbic system where the amygdala, reacting to emotional content of the decoded message, prepares our body to fight or flee by altering our biochemistry if the change is interpreted as threatening. Signals continue to spread neuron-to-neuron through the actions of hormones, bioelectric signals, and neurotransmitters to many brain areas, communicating and combining with physical and emotional responses that precede conscious thought.

This tidal wave of action passing through different parts of the brain eventually reaches the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) — the executive controller of our working memory — where it’s evaluated. Based on our internal traits and our stored memories, the PFC makes a judgement call, thus contributing to future thoughts and emotions as we transfer and project existing memories onto new thoughts to match our expectations, needs, and beliefs.

What we perceive as real includes not just a representation of the stimulus world but also that which our psyche adds to or subtracts from as it is translated into new actions and memories, all of which give rise to our unique reconstruction of the external world. However, by the time conscious thought and decision making are possible, our brain may have already settled on an initial course of action.

Unfortunately, in the case of change management strategies, this type of emotion-laden action may produce responses counter to the changes you’re hoping to enact.

Something else to consider is an individual’s innate ‘approach’ or ‘avoidance’ bias, which is due to differences within their septo-hippocampal system and PFC and may dramatically influence the acceptance of change plans. There have been numerous studies on these behaviours that attempt to explain and measure individual differences of approach or avoidance personality traits. Perhaps the most influential is a theory proposed by Jeffrey Gray describing behaviours that are thought to be governed by separate approach and avoidance systems within the brain. Gray’s theory (known as the revised Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (r-RST) suggests that individual differences in innate approach-avoidance traits are affected by three systems:

  1. The Behavioural Approach System (BAS) comprises personality traits of optimism, reward-orientation, and impulsiveness, consistent with extroversion
  2. The Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS) is responsible for the resolution of goal conflict through the assessment of uncertainty and risk using input from memory and the environment
  3. The Fight-Flight-Freeze System (FFFS) is responsible for mediating reactions to all aversive stimuli, including fear, to reduce the difference between threat and safety

If we view the relationship between innate approach-avoidance traits and an individual’s initial reaction to change, in terms of the r-RST, it’s possible an individual will react in one of four ways as depicted in Figure 1:

A. Those with approach personality traits, who initially reject change, typically vocalise their dissent and openly criticise and undermine the change strategy. They do not see any reward in changing and will fight to retain the status quo. This type need convincing through messages framed with positive language to activate approach actions towards accepting change.


“Your skills make you a valuable employee and a key player in the roll out of the new computer system. Your support will be essential in helping others to adapt and together we can be competitive and deliver better outcomes for our customers.”


B. Those with avoidance traits, who initially fear change, are likely to experience levels of anxiety due to internal conflict and uncertainty that inhibits movement towards change. By playing upon this group’s innate pessimistic outlook it’s possible to create motivating messages using avoidance framed language emphasising that not changing is clearly a greater threat than the change itself.


“I know you are concerned about the forthcoming introduction of the new computer system and the extra work that will be initially required. However, we need you to start developing a personal change plan as soon as possible to ensure that the roll-out in your area goes smoothly. Failure to do this will mean we risk losing our competitive edge and let down our customers, which will certainly lead us to downsize.”


C. Those with approach traits, who initially embrace change, actively seek and facilitate change and pose few, if any, problems for change managers. The more extroverted ones can be put to good use as ‘change evangelists’ to influence those who are undecided or not fully committed to accept change — the ‘fence sitters’ who are easier to move in the right direction than those who reject change outright.

D. Those with avoidance traits, who recognise the need for change, tend to react easily to aversive stimuli thus recognising that stagnation is a greater threat than change. This type needs reassuring throughout the process that change is still the better option. One way of doing this is to celebrate any short term wins so as to make change goals appear closer and the threat of not changing to appear further away.

The Motivation-Trait Model uses our current understanding of r-RST approach-avoidance processes to understand why certain individuals either embrace or avoid change and encourage behaviours that recognise and react to threats in appropriate ways, rather than rejecting change, being too frightened to act, or not knowing what to do.

By knowing your team well and having a clear understanding of the underlying factors at play and how each innately responds to the idea of change, you are in a better position to manage an organisational change plan. And you are also more likely to succeed.

This article is based on the paper Turnbull, M. (2015). A Model of Motivation for Facilitating Sustainable Change. Neuroleadeship Journal Volume 5, (January 2015).

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