Leadership Through Change

It Isn’t Brain Surgery, but Understanding the Brain Will Help!

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

If you’re leading a team, you’re no stranger to the fact that change is inevitable. Your job is to dampen the waves that come from changes so your team so they can focus on the important tactical details of the mission. Sometimes there are major changes (rogue waves — to retain the wave metaphor) on the horizon that end up impacting team structure or day to day work that are going to rock the boat despite your efforts. This primer is meant to help you ride that wave without losing your crew.

Processing Change Starts at the Amygdala

The amygdala is this itty-bitty (lima-bean sized) portion of the brain that controls emotional response & fight or flight. When this bad boy takes over, all your thought processes are driven by emotion and not logic. When your team is suffering amygdala hijack due to a major org change (or even rumors of one) productivity and logical decision making grind to a halt.

The astute observer will note that when a major change is announced, the more emotionally forward co-workers will exhibit phases remarkably similar to the grief cycle. People will exhibit 4 major stages:

Denial => Resistance => Acceptance => Commitment

In addition to the emotional response, humans — like most animals — are wired to expend as few calories as possible. Things like learning a new manager, navigating uncertainty, and forming new neural pathways cost energy and we’re naturally resistant to it unless there’s an obvious benefit.

As leaders, we need to understand how the human brain works when exposed to an environment of change so we can relate better to our people, as well as understand & work within the bounds of our own reactions to change.

The Amygdala

Navigating Change isn’t Brain Surgery

Knowing enough armchair psychology and neuroscience, you can understand and combat many of the anxieties and issues that come about during a period of major change. Understanding the emotions, concerns, and thoughts of your team will guide your actions to ensure a smooth transition that won’t send your team running for the hills. Here are some must do tips for leaders to get their team through the uncertain times.

Before the Change is Announced

You’ll want to keep things close to the vest to prevent a rumor mill from starting. While doing so, you also need to anticipate the concerns and questions that will come up and have answers to those questions, even if they are answers that employees won’t want to hear. Brainstorm some key questions that will come up and prepare as detailed as possible answers to those.

During the Announcement

The announcement should come in one fell swoop and be available in text format as well for anyone who cannot be in attendance. You should have as much information as possible to minimize uncertainty. Rumor mills thrive in uncertainty and people will assume the worst when given no information. Make sure everyone hears the message at the same time. Prepare an orderly process for allowing people to voice their concerns and do not give political corporate non-answers that will send people running for the hills. It’s O.K. to say “I don’t know” but offer a firm date for when people can circle back to you for a real answer.

During the Transition

People are going to be emotional and have more personalized questions. This is the time when you need to show stability yourself and be available to your team. Your team will be concerned about anything ranging from “How will this affect my promotion I was on track for” to “Will the free snacks still be a thing”. During this time, you will also feel emotional about some things. It’s important to remain objective for the stability of your team.

You’ll likely observe unpopular or baseless policies go into effect. Be prepared to go to bat for your team and represent their best interests. If there’s a transition of some well respected senior leaders, make sure a succession plan is known as soon as possible. People will be concerned about how this affects day-to-day operations and promotions. It is important to not disrupt any of this. The worst thing an incoming leader can do is hold up a planned promotion because they didn’t personally observe said performance, or because the promotion process goalpost moved.

After the Dust Settles

At this point, ideally everyone will have made it through the change cycle, and any new teams should have gone through the storming and conforming phases. As a leader it’s important now to present a consistent unified front with your leadership colleagues while still representing the interests of your team.

If you re-organized or merged companies, it’s important to as soon as applicable, arrange a social meet & greet if the team makeup changes. Delaying will only further cause an “us vs them” atmosphere that is highly unproductive.

Wrapping Up

As you can see, it’s important to understand how the human brain processes change and to anticipate an emotional response leading a logical one. If you understand how to work with the brain rather than against it, you can work with your team to dampen the impact of a major change without losing people to rumor mills and unnecessary anxiety.

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Software Engineer | Product Leader

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Dominick Caponi

Dominick Caponi

Software Engineer | Product Leader

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