Neuroplasticity helps explain how people learn and feel motivated for change. As we guide our organizations through rapidly changing times, it is helpful to have a look at what neuroscience can teach us.
Right now, society is not only facing residual challenges from the pandemic, it is also facing energy shortages and the increasing impacts of climate change. Many organizations also struggle to complete multiple projects at the same time. This kind of demand means today's leaders and their employees are suffering from change fatigue. Multitasking, which allows an overflow of demands and information, promotes an inner attitude of change resistance. Yet, in many organizations, change is more urgent than ever. This is a challenge for change leaders: motivating their people to engage in something with which they are fed up.
Here, neuroscientific insights can be helpful. Though, having a closer look at neuroscientific findings, they are not ground-breaking. Instead, they bring us back to the roots of human requirement: a safe environment, trust and appreciation of individual needs.
Neuroplasticity and How It Works
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change itself constantly by creating new neural pathways and losing those that are no longer used. When we learn a new skill, it requires sustained practice that sufficiently challenges our brain so that we think and behave in a new way. To most people, this might feel unpleasant as they need to extend or leave their comfort zones. But, when they do, the brain works harder to stimulate and grow new neural pathways. When this behavior is regularly repeated, the brain becomes more flexible. Like a muscle, it will learn to stretch and become stronger the more exercise it gets. Studies declare that it takes up to ten thousand hours to learn and take a new skill to mastery. Since our brains are as unique as we as individuals like to think of ourselves, this might not be a rock-solid benchmark. Repetition and consistency are crucial to improve neuroplasticity. In this way, we gain more resilience.
In most large-scale enterprise transformations, employees need upskilling and reskilling. They need to understand and incorporate new processes or new ways of working. Neuroplasticity is the key to not just learning better, but also to emotional intelligence, open-mindedness, paying attention to one’s intuition and overcoming bias.
The First Lever: Creating a Psychologically Safe Environment
Our brains’ ability to learn new ways of doing and thinking is dependent on how often we dare to expand or step outside our comfort zones. So, when we feel safe, we take these risks and try (= learn) new things. Trust helps us feel safe. Leaders who know how to build a culture of trust benefit from high employee engagement, resulting in a happier workforce overall.
The following four management behaviors stimulate a culture of trust:
- Acknowledge awareness of uniqueness. A one-size-fits-all approach to team members may create a sense of fairness, but it certainly does not convey the necessary sense of recognition and appreciation of a person's unique skills, character and needs. What interests and inspires the employee? This knowledge is paramount for a leader to support people in their individual career aspirations. Empathetic leadership enables an employee to achieve their goals faster and help them thrive.
- Communicate and be transparent. According to the 2022 Trust Outlook, 92% of employees stated they would trust their senior leader more if that leader would be more transparent about their mistakes. Transparency, however, is not synonymous with trust because confidentiality inspires trust, too. But demonstrating vulnerability and being transparent about critical information that helps employees understand the consequences is important. Studies show that leaders who are not afraid to show their vulnerability receive instant expression of confidence and support from their teams. Knowing how to communicate mistakes, obstacles, concerns or negative messages is not easy, but it’s essential.
- Facilitate strong, personal bonds. Great conversations in which leaders and their employees discover common ground, such as shared values and interest from their personal lives, build rapport and connection. That's because the brain releases the hormone oxytocin during these types of conversations. Oxytocin is associated with love, trust and calm. Once it is released, we connect positive feelings with our conversation partner. By fostering trusting relationships, leaders actively create the conditions for these connections to form within their teams or departments. Offsite team-building activities and even remote get-togethers can achieve the trick.
- Consistency. It is of utmost importance for a leader's credibility that their words match their actions. False promises and over-compensatory outlooks benefit no one and have the opposite effect. Leaders, more than others, need to be mindful and intentional about their next actions and how they communicate them. This adds to a positive reputation and trust.
The Second Lever: The Right Kind of Motivation Helps Us Step Outside Our Comfort Zone
Leaving our comfort zone can be uncomfortable, but with the right incentive and motivation, it can be mastered. Leaders are advised to encourage consistency and repetition of newly learned behaviors and ways of thinking. When the new neural pathways are formed, what is learned becomes automatic.
So what is effective motivation?
- Individual recognition. What would make you feel more appreciated: a gift card or something you wanted to get for a long time, e.g. that special leadership skill training with that one special trainer you saw in a TED Talk? Randomly selected perks are unlikely to serve their purpose for building trust and uniqueness awareness. As a leader, it's important to know the internal and external drivers that motivate an employee to go beyond one's comfort zone again and again.
- Coaching and mentorship. Once employees are sufficiently equipped and trained for the change ahead, leaders need to let them decide HOW to do their jobs. Trusting them to figure things out for themselves is a great incentive and learning opportunity. This doesn't mean that the role of the leader is less important. Instead of controlling the how, they should focus on the what: providing insight and clear direction, while allowing their teams to self-organize. This is also known as servant leadership.
- Feedback culture. Sometimes we observe that we get better within the same practice session because we get immediate feedback on what we can improve. Asking for and receiving feedback in a timely manner is critical to learning faster and gaining momentum. This is what motivates us to go further and push boundaries. Feedback formats like 360° feedback, retrospectives and shadowing are great tools to help an employee gain confidence and assurance. The more an employee experiences trusting relationships and a supportive network, the more the confidence is amplified. All of this is important for fostering brain agility.
- The master story. The company's strategic direction, values and goals do not automatically circulate from senior management to the teams that need to accomplish the work. Instead of employees understanding what needs to be done and getting excited about it, confusion and uncertainty spread across. To avoid this, leaders need to take care of two things when creating the master story: 1) create relevant, persuasive messaging and 2) design a plan to distribute the messaging. A great message engages and secures buy-in from all levels. It conveys the WHY by answering important questions as transparently as possible and communicating the impact of the change on and benefits for employees. It answers, "What's in it for me?" Master stories need to trigger motivation like communicating user benefits, for example. If there are no identifiable benefits, there must at least be communication about how potential losses can be avoided by implementing change. Whatever the master story is, the leadership team must speak with one voice. Consistent and repetitive messages are also a factor in success. It takes more than one town hall meeting to internalize the messages. Repetition is necessary for neuroplasticity to unfold and for new information to stick.
- Simplicity. At first glance, that may not sound very motivating. However, studies have shown that the less employees have to multitask, the less data overload they are exposed to, the less they have to attend meetings, the fewer emails they have to answer in a day – the list could go on – the more they can stay on top of things. Pressing the pause button can help overcome feelings of stress, anxiety and overwhelm. Leaders who acknowledge and respect their employees' work-life balance and allow relaxation during work benefit from faster recovery during hectic times. The stress hormone cortisol can even be lowered if sufficient breaks are taken throughout the day. The brain needs these reboots to store everything it has learned.
Knowing how to apply these insights will help leaders guide their teams through change. When leaders know how to manage change, they help their organizations move away from viewing large-scale transformations as one or many projects to thinking of change as an ongoing process. By encouraging neuroplasticity, leaders make change about achievable challenges and learning opportunities. This is what Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset.
ISG’s experts are familiar with neuroplasticity and growth mindsets. This is why ISG's structured OCM approach adheres to the latest neuroscientific findings and recognizes leadership in change. ISG’s OCM experts support leaders as they manage the important people-side of transformation. Contact us to find out how we can help you.