Book review: Neuroscience for organizational change by Hilary Scarlett

The book “Neuroscience for organizational change: an evidence-based practical guide to managing change” by Hilary Scarlett is both intellectually challenging and practical. I would add it to the list of recommended books on change management that should be read by those involved in organizational change programmes whether leaders, human resource professionals or other change managers. It is particularly valuable as we navigate the multitude of changes resulting from the Coronavirus pandemic.

The book touches on many familiar psychology ideas but it’s helpful to have them organised in one place with a focus on change management. And with guidance on how to implement them. After reading the book I realised that after decades of psychology study (and my original undergraduate – brain, biology and behaviour courses) I appear to be an accidental neuroscientist!

The premise is that organizations need their people to constantly adapt and change, collaborate, innovate and perform at their best. So those leading change need to understand how the brain perceives and processes change. A key message is that people find uncertainty disturbing and distracting yet small actions can make a significant difference to their ability to focus at work.

History of neuroscience

The book starts with a quick history of neuroscience. In 400 BC, the physician Hippocrates recognised that epilepsy and madness were disturbances of the brain and discovered the lateralization of brain function.

There’s the 1848 story of Phineas Gage who damaged his brain at work and found that his personality completely changed. There’s a mention of the work of Paul Broca and Karl Wernicke who discovered the areas of the brain responsible for speech and the ability to understand language respectively.

Henry Molaison (HM) and his 1953 operation on his hippocampus to relieve epilepsy who subsequently became incapable of forming new memories. The 2014 Noble prize-winning work of Professor John O’ Keefe showing the hippocampus also deals with spatial orientation. The author argues that neuroscience is still in its infancy.

Brain facts

This section took me back to my undergraduate studies. We have brains 5-7 times larger than would be expected for a mammal of our body size. By the time we are three, our brains are 80% of adult size and this increases to 90% by the age of five. Our brains have 86 billion neurons and there are 100 million in the gut.

In 2007, Robin Dunbar argued that we evolved larger brains to handle our increasingly complex and large social groups. Neurons that frequently signal to each other form a stronger connection –  Hebb’s Law (1949) that “cells that fire together, wire together” which is one of the ideas in neuroplasticity.

The brain’s goal is survival – to avoid threats (the stronger drive) and seek rewards. There’s an interesting example where we react harder and longer to a negative email than a positive one.

Our brains can conserve energy if they have information and certainty to make predictions. The author mentions some of the shortcuts it takes by referencing Robert Cialdini’s work on influence.

There is evidence that the brains of cab drivers and fighter pilots are different as a result of their memory and spatial awareness skills.

Why our brains don’t like organizational change

“In a threat state we are more vulnerable to anxiety, anger and feeling insecure and in competition with our colleagues”.

Organizations are at their most vulnerable when going through prolonged periods of change.

Research suggests we can live more comfortably with certainty about a negative outcome than with uncertainty. During uncertainty, several areas of our brains become active – particularly those that are part of our fear network (prompting the fight, flight, freeze and flock responses). People experienced with change are better with new change – that’s part of resilience.

What can we do about change?

“Neuroscience shows that people will be much more supportive of change if they have been able to come to their own insights about what is the best course of action. We tend to like something much more when we have made an active choice to select it” (Sharot et al, 2012).

At page 37, the book shifts into practical action. There’s an overview of how the brain functions and our ability to think and perform under threat or reward conditions. The Yerkes-Dodson inverted U of performance is discussed. Csiksventmihalyi’s (1990) idea of flow is mentioned – to achieve this we need clear challenge, skills, feedback and positive feelings (which increases the level of neurotransmitter Dopamine).

Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mind sets arises when the author writes about the power of believing that you can improve. And there’s a nod to Jim Collin’s book “Good to great” mentioning that long term successful companies are willing to “confront the brutal facts”. The need to be relaxed for creativity to flow, setting short-term achievable goals and reminding people of past achievements, giving praise and recognition and allowing people to reach their own insights were suggested actions.

Neuroscience shows laughter is good for the brain – happy people are up to 12% more productive.

Our social brains – the role of leaders and managers

“Our sensitivity to fairness is particularly heightened during change”.

This chapter starts: “We have hugely underestimated our need for social connection at work”. Historically, organizations placed less value on the ability to understand people and nurture relationships. The author argues that soft skills were considered nice to have rather than essential.

There’s an argument that Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs is wrong. Liberman argues that without love and social care as babies we would not get our physiological needs met. Our modern day brains have to be extremely good at navigating the social landscape as we are now very interdependent.

Social rejection hurts – referring to the work of Naomi Eisenberger  – alerting us to threats to our well-being. Human beings are very sensitive to rejection and there’s research to show that painkillers are effective at reducing social pain (which also reduces our ability to think).

The idea of ingroups and outgroups translating as friend or foe is explored. The author argues that we need to feel connected, respected and included – partly as in the past we had a better chance of survival when in a tribe.

Social skills improve team working and the three factors for collective intelligence are shown as:

1. Teams contribute equally in conversations
2. Teams with stronger social sensitivity (emotional intelligence)
3. Teams with more women outperformed teams with more men – partly due to women’s greater empathy skills

There’s a reference to Dunbar’s number (the number of close relationships we can manage). We need to have meaning in our work and it helps to see how it helps the beneficiaries. There’s power in the word “together” – participants who were told they were working on a problem together worked 48% longer.

To activate the reward network you need to treat people fairly, give to charity, recognise reputations, make time for people, help people let go and develop shared goals.

Managing emotions during change

(I recently made a short video about emotions during change and the Kubler-Ross cycle)

This section starts with a discussion about the role and value of emotions – and evidence that we need them to make even the simplest decisions. Emotions – our interpretation of physiological response to stimuli – are linked mostly to the limbic area of the brain and, in particular the amygdala which is associated with fear, the hippocampus which is linked to memory and the hypothalamus which co-ordinates things including triggering the stress response.

The six basic emotions (happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, disgust and anger) are explored and emotional contagion is addressed.

There is an analysis of the causes of psychological stress – receiving criticism, boredom and continual change are mentioned. There’s a mention of Hallowell’s 2005 Harvard Business Review article describing ADT (Attention Deficit Trait) – I reviewed his fantastic book on stress in 2009.

The author then goes onto the role of self-control as we live in “tribes” and shows evidence that this is a limited resource. It also explains that the reason we might be grumpy with our loved ones at home is because we have used up all our self-control at work!

It’s really interesting to see evidence that we don’t make good decisions when hungry – the less glucose, the more risk averse you become. Research shows that people with emotional control tend to fare better in life. James Gross’s model of the stages and options we have in managing and controlling our emotions is explored:

1. Situation selection – choosing situations that spark emotions we would like to have and avoid situations causing those we don’t
2. Situation modification – altering the situation to make it evoke more positive emotions
3. Attention deployment – changing how we perceive a situation such as distraction or focusing
4. Cognitive change – distancing, reappraising or reframing the situation
5. Response modulation – By using exercise, relaxation or mindfulness (people who practise mindfulness for 15 minutes a day were more likely to make rational decisions)

When people are feeling stressed, a perception of having some control reduces cortisol. Labelling emotions reduces the intensity too. Breathing techniques and “five things” grounding techniques are described.

The role of workshops in helping others manage their emotions was discussed – providing a safe place for people to vent their feelings and using appreciative inquiry (discover, dream, design, deliver). The agenda for workshops during turbulent times is useful.

Decision-making and bias

“People want predictability and certainty from their leaders”.

“Being in a threat state means that our field of vision literally narrows and we are less able to perceive what is going on around us”.

The work of Cialdini on influence and Thaler and Sunstein on nudging  are explored. The paradox of needing to make fast decisions during change while being surrounded by uncertainty and therefore in a “threat state” must be ringing true for many leaders now.

There’s Ratcliff’s diffusion decision model showing the trade-off between speed and accuracy (time to gather information). And Kahneman’s work on “Thinking fast and slow” is mentioned – which notes that the System 1 energy-conserving automatic decision-making means that we take short cuts that lay us open to one of the hundreds of cognitive biases. I explore some of the biases mentioned and also in my book Better Business Relationships.

The author offers numerous tips to help reduce the impact of bias: planning decision-making meetings, building self-awareness, being open to different views, regular food breaks, mindfulness and playing devil’s advocate, building ingroups and remaining open to challenge.

Communication, involvement and the role of storytelling

There are two themes in this section which seem highly relevant during the Coronavirus crisis and lockdown:

“A large part of communication during change is to keep leaders in touch with how employees feel about the changes”.

“Events that are uncontrollable and unpredictable are very stressful to us”

Information is rewarding to the brain in the same way as food, water and other rewards. People prefer negative information to no information – as uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. There’s an interesting challenge for leaders in balancing early communication (and possibly having to correct things later) versus the dangers of leaving a communications void which is deeply unsettling.

Past experience and expectation influence what we take in. Cognitive dissonance occurs when we have conflicting ideas which are painful to us. The phrases that are used to request a conversation can trigger the fear response.

There’s a short chapter explaining that face-to-face communication is better than via screens – that’s particularly resonant during lock down. This is probably due to the fact that is easier to convey warmth and trust personally – and the need to really listen. The author returns to the point about needing to allow people to come to their own conclusions – there’s a careful balance required between the need for autonomy with the need for certainty.

“Leaders who use image-based words in their vision statements are more successful at conveying their vision and galvanising people to work together towards a shared goal”.

The storytelling material explains why stories are so important to us – i.e. the theory of mind or mentalising and possibly an advantage from evolution to explore simulations and different scenarios. There’s an important message for cultural change in that the evidence suggests that after reading or listening to stories, our beliefs shift in line with the narrative. There’s more on storytelling here.

There are some good ideas around using big or rich pictures or learning maps during workshops. And I really liked the personal “moving on” planner. There’s advice to leaders to be visible and to repeat messages, putting them in writing and checking understanding. There’s a reminder that under stress we tend to remember negative messages so it is important during change to focus on positive future possibilities.

Planning change with the brain in mind

This final chapter draws on advice throughout the book. It reminds us that change requires more energy than staying as we are. For those interested in cultural change it shares the MacLeod and Clarke research from 2009 on the four factors that distinguished those organisations with high employee engagement:

1. Visible, empowering leadership providing a strong strategic narrative
2. Engaging managers who focus their people and give them scope
3. There is an employee voice throughout the organisation for reinforcing and challenging views
4. There is organizational integrity – the values on the walls are reflected in the day-to-day behaviours

And there’s strong support for managers who coach and help their employees find their own answers.

There’s a reference to Dan Pink’s book “Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us” (2009) who sets out three factors that motivate people – autonomy, mastery and purpose. And the author chooses Kotter’s eight steps for the change management process.

And much to my delight there’s a review of one of my favourite books: “Transitions” by William Bridge’s. His stage model of navigating the confusion of change from 1991 is reviewed: endings, neutral zone and new beginning.

The author finishes with her acronym for having a strong impact on motivation and employee engagement – SPACES:

• Self-esteem
• Purpose
• Autonomy
• Certainty
• Equity
• Social connection

Other organizational change resources

Videos on change:

Emotions during the change cycle 


Other books on change management:

The Change Catalyst by Campbell MacPherson 

Making sense of change management by Esther Cameron and Mike Green

How to change when change is hard by Chip and Dan Heath

Helping people change – compassionate coaching by Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith and Ellen Van Oosten 

Other change management posts:

The Adaptive third

Changing behaviour in the workplace to improve productivity 

Employee engagement 

Ready to change? 

Leadership and change management 

Millennials, metaphors and resistance

Six tips for change management