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Hilary Scarlett

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Why are some people more resilient when facing change?


In the first of this series of articles on Better Organisational Change Through Neuroscience, we looked at why our brains find organisational change difficult.

Change that is unpredictable and uncontrollable is particularly stressful to the brain. But as anyone who has been through organisational change will know, it can be difficult to foresee how people will respond to change. Why is it that some people are more anxious about an office relocation than others are about a redundancy programme? What causes the difference?

We don’t see reality

We have all had that experience of going to a meeting, discussing it with a colleague afterwards, and realising that they heard very different points from us. How can they have heard something so different? Are they being deliberately perverse or stupid?

Each of us thinks we see the world as it really is and that our version of what we see is the right one, but in fact none of us see “reality”.

We each see an interpretation as provided by our brains. Past experience, our personality, our expectations, current context and our biases all have an impact on what we experience and what we take in.

Because each of us has a unique experience of life, what we each perceive will be very different.

Past experiences shape our current perception and experience

I spoke recently to a public sector employee whose Government department is about to restructure and downsize for the second time in five years. She admits she is very anxious.

Even though she emerged from the last restructure successfully – she still has a job – the process employees had to go through to keep their jobs felt so lacking in empathy, that the feelings she had five years ago now come flooding back and colour how she sees this imminent restructuring.

Because each of us has a unique experience of life, what we each perceive will be very different.

She is worried again, and as we know from the last article, that means that she won’t be thinking or working at her best.

When confronted with a situation, the brain subconsciously compares the current situation with what it has experienced in the past. If the past experience was uncomfortable, then those feelings will re-appear.

If we felt ok about the past experience, then we are more likely to feel ok with the current situation.

What can we do to help employees feel resilient during change?

A useful way to sum up what people need to keep them resilient during change is the acronym: SPACES. It stands for

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

SPACES can be used at a micro level to plan interactions – a phone call or a meeting for example – or it can be used on a more macro level as a checklist of how to plan the change programme as a whole, to help maintain resilience.

Neuroscientists have shown that winning really is a habit.


The very word ‘change’ suggests that how we have done things in the past has not been good enough. It’s a criticism and our brains don’t like it. No one likes to feel that what they have been doing is wrong.

So, organisations need to think carefully about how they talk about change. Being too critical of the past will undermine people’s sense of self-esteem. We need to treat the past with respect.

If we felt ok about the past experience, then we are more likely to feel ok with the current situation.

Another clue as to what we can do lies in a paragraph above: what the brain recalls from our pasts influences how we feel about the current situation.

So, asking an employee to reflect on a time when they rose to a challenge and handled it well creates a positive mindset and builds self-esteem.

It reminds them that they have faced difficult situations before and they have got through them. This positive mindset then puts the employee in a better position to deal with the upcoming changes.

Neuroscientists have shown that winning really is a habit. Winning changes the chemical balance in our brains and puts our brains in a better place to take on the next challenge and to win. Winning breeds winning.

So what can you help employees win at? 


In my experience of working with employees going through change, most are able to deal with even the most difficult of changes if there is a clear sense of purpose for those changes and a clear sense of what the benefits will be.

In particular, knowing how the changes will positively affect other people is important. When we have a sense of purpose, especially a sense of shared purpose with others, our brain chemistry changes and our resilience increases: we are less sensitive to pain and better equipped to deal with challenges at work.

Our sense of wellbeing improves.


The brain needs a sense of having some control. Feeling a mere pawn in the change programme increases the threat state in people’s brains and reduces their ability to think and to focus. Identify what people can control, allow them to have some influence and this helps to build their resilience.

Even in the most difficult circumstances there is always something that employees can control: in one office that was closing and jobs were going, employees were encouraged to take responsibility for recognising past successes and for planning how to say good-bye to people.


The brain likes certainty – we covered this in the previous article.

If we don’t have it, we are distracted and waste a huge amount of energy speculating.

Some research conducted by University College London shows that uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain: knowing that there is a small chance of getting a painful electric shock can lead to significantly more stress than knowing you will definitely get a painful shock.

“When applying for a job, you’ll probably feel more relaxed if you think it’s a long shot or if you’re confident that it’s in the bag,” said co-author Dr Robb Rutledge (UCL Institute of Neurology and Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research).

Uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain.

“The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious. The same is likely to apply in many familiar situations, whether it’s waiting for medical results or information on train delays.”


Our need for fair and transparent treatment comes to the fore when we are going through change. If resources are going to be changed or limited, then we want to feel that we will get as good a chance as others at getting those resources.

Anyone who has children or who has been around young people will know just how strong this sense of fairness and equal treatment is. Feeling that we are being dealt with in a fair and transparent way puts our brains into a more positive place.

Social connection

This is such an important area that it is the focus of the next article in the series.

The Healthy Mind Platter

David Rock and Dan Siegel have set out the seven essential activities our brains need to stay healthy. Just as we are taught that our bodies need five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day, so our brains need certain activities to work at their best.

Siegel and Rock identify these as: sleep, physical exercise, time to focus and make connections in our brains, time with friends and family, time for having fun and new ideas, time for zoning out and letting the mind wander, and time for practising mindfulness and quiet reflection.

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Hilary Scarlett


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