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Hilary Scarlett

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The impact of organisational change on the brain


This is the first in a series of four articles by Hilary Scarlett, speaker, consultant and author on Better Organisational Change through Neuroscience. They draw from her book, Neuroscience for Organizational Change – an evidence-based, practical guide to managing change.

The articles explore how the brain responds to organisational change and, equipped with a better understanding of our brains, set out what we can do to keep ourselves and others performing at their best.

Understanding the brain better: it’s a ‘win-win’

Simply understanding a little more about how our brains work can help us to work with the brain, rather than despite it.

There’s a real win-win here.

In a time when organisations are focused on productivity but also concerned about the emotional and mental wellbeing of employees, neuroscience – the study of the nervous system including the brain – can provide practical insights into how to achieve both.

Our brains are not designed for the 21st century workplace

Work has changed hugely but our brains have not. Part of the challenge we face is that we are working in 21st century workplaces with brains that are designed for living on the savannah.

One part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) where we do all our planning, considered thinking and rein in our emotions, has evolved, but the rest of the brain has not changed much at all, and therein lies the problem.

For our brains, the key aim is survival, and they have done a good job of this which is why we are all here today. To enable us to survive, the brain wants to do two key things: avoid threats and seek out ‘rewards’. Of the two, avoiding threats is by far the more important.

Work has changed hugely but our brains have not.

We can go without food, shelter, even water for a while but if the predator gets you, then it’s ‘game over’.

As part of this drive to avoid threats, the brain wants to be able to predict and have certainty. If the brain can predict what is going to happen, then it is much better placed to protect us. It follows that when our brains have information and certainty, they find this rewarding – it feels good.

The impact of change on the brain

What does organisational change mean? It means the brain cannot predict and certainty is taken away. Our brains find this very uncomfortable.

It is as if an error alert has gone off and our brains cannot settle. The ‘fight or flight’ response has been triggered, sending blood to those parts of our brains that prepare us to run away or fight, and away from the PFC where we do our considered thinking.

To the brain, bad news is better than no news.

Our ability to think clearly is reduced and memory is impaired.

In this state, our brains tend to filter for threats. We start to see the workplace as more hostile: we start to see existing threats as greater than they really are and we see threats where they don’t even exist.

Suddenly the boss not saying “Good Morning” to us takes on a more worrying significance at a conscious or subconscious level. We are more likely to view colleagues as competitors (because we are now in competition for resources that might become more scarce). We have less emotional control. Our performance drops off.

As we realise that we are not focusing or performing at our best, we go further down into a negative spiral.

Neuroscience teaches us to be more empathetic. If someone is finding change hard, it’s not a sign of weakness, but their brain registering a discomfort with something it is not designed to like.

To the brain, bad news is better than no news

In fact the brain finds uncertainty so uncomfortable that we are better at dealing with bad news, even very bad news, than not knowing what the future holds.

This point is illustrated by research conducted by Wiggins et al (1992) into children with a parent who has Huntington’s Disease.

To have the gene for the disease is very bad news indeed. It damages certain cells in the brain and the condition gets progressively worse, causing physical, behavioural and personality changes before an early death. There is no cure.  If your parent has the disease, then there is a 50% chance that you have it.

However, Wiggins found that people who take the test, whether the test proves negative or positive, feel better than those who don’t. Whether it is good or bad news, they have lower scores for depression and higher scores for wellbeing than the children who don’t know.

Certainty means we can plan

Once we have certainty, we begin to know what the story is, which allows us to make meaning and tell ourselves a narrative about what is happening to us. We can begin to plan.

Once we have knowledge, we spend less time and energy ruminating. Without such certainty, we don’t know what the story is, and are left endlessly working through the different possibilities, and the potential impact on us. 

After the banking crisis, I worked with leaders in a bank who knew that they and their teams would be out of a job within 18 months.

Once we have knowledge, we spend less time and energy ruminating.

They scored higher on employee engagement scores, performed better and were more successful at hitting their targets than people in the main part of the bank. Initially this seemed surprising.

But these people had certainty. They knew they would be leaving and could start to plan for that outcome. Their colleagues in the main part of the bank were told they had jobs but everyone knew there was no such thing as job security.

Unpredictable and uncontrollable = very stressful

Some people are more resilient when faced with change (we will come back to this in a subsequent article).

Two factors make a big difference: change that is both unpredictable and uncontrollable is very stressful. It is the combination of the two that is so pernicious.

Just think about the difference in two punishments for a child “Go upstairs and don’t come down again this evening”, compared with “Go upstairs and just you wait until your father gets home…”

The latter is much more threatening because of the unpredictability of what it might mean. The same is true for our adult brains.

For many employees it is not so much the big, planned change programme that causes stress, it is the constant drip of small unpredictable changes that eventually wear them down and take their toll.

So, what can we do? 

Fortunately, neuroscience provides insights as to what we can do to help settle and focus the brain when surrounded by uncertainty. The good news is that quite small things can make a big difference. Here are three things we can do:

  1. Break down long-term goals into goals that employees can achieve today, this week. Achieving a goal is rewarding to the brain and puts it into a better place to take on the next challenge.
  2. As we have seen above, providing as much certainty as possible is also positive to the brain. Our brains crave information (it goes back to the point that if our brains have information they feel they are better placed to predict and to protect us), so it is beneficial to provide regular updates. Even if there is not much news, at least let employees be certain about the communication process – when and how they will receive updates.

Perhaps one of the most useful things we can do is give employees time to reach their own insights about why change is needed. Reaching insights is rewarding to the brain and we are far more committed to change when we feel we have chosen it in some way rather than just having it imposed upon us.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for the article.
    Thank you for the article. The points about the ‘uncertainty’ vs ‘certainty’ are very true in my experience. Particularly when it comes to organisational change. Vague emails, closed doors, no communication all lead to distrust and fear. The people who are often the most needed in an organisation are the quickest to leave to competitors due to the uncertainty involved. I always find the politics involved with organisation change, the new favourites and the assumptions made about roles, skills required to be part of a company where it is changing it’s strategic direction never seem to be communicated well.

  2. Interesting article. Links
    Interesting article. Links with other areas I am reading, particularly regarding disturbance and altruism in the workplace

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Hilary Scarlett


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