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A Framework for Applying Neuroscience to Difficult Change in Coaching and Change Management

One of the things we hear from Change Leaders we train and certify is that it's often unclear how Neuroscience findings can be applied to support change in general and difficult change in particular.

How Do Scientific Findings Apply to Difficult Change Challenges?

In some cases, one specific Neuroscience finding leads to a specific technique. For example, understanding how to engage Prefrontal Cortex functions, which are more focused and less emotional, allows us to support people to be more in control of their emotions when they experience overwhelming emotions (like extreme anger, frustration etc.). However, in most cases, the makeup of specific science-based principles and techniques for supporting people through change is not that one-dimensional. Most Neuroscience-based principles, techniques, and tools draw on a lot more than one single finding.

Can Neuroscience Findings Help with Difficult Change?

There's a lot of extraordinary work done to apply science-based findings to change in general, but what about difficult change in particular? How does Neuroscience improve our ability to support people through difficult change when people:

  • Struggle to adopt or sustain change.

  • Actively or passively try to block change.

Does Neuroscience offer any insight into how we can improve Leadership Development programs that provide excellent content but result in little behavioral change? Do we have any powerful new guiding steps to work through changes that meet with cynicism or resistance? What can be done to successfully overcome obstacles like dysfunctional internal dynamics or lack of accountability in a team or organizational development process? Are there any scientific principles that can help us successfully support individuals who are disengaged or non-receptive to change?

Neuroscience is a growing field and there is still a lot to explore and learn, but what we do know to date has a huge impact on our ability to guide people through difficult change. There is so much more we can do to support people who resist and block change, or desire to achieve new outcomes but struggle to adopt or sustain change.

A Specific Framework

At KCI, we use a clear framework to integrate a wide variety of Neuroscience-findings to support people through difficult change.

This framework groups together different principles, tools, and techniques under 5 overarching "pillars" so you can look at any difficult change challenge, break it down into manageable components, and have a clearly outlined process for guiding people to achieve desired outcomes.

To get an intuitive sense of how you can use the framework and make difficult change simple, let's look at how it applies to improve the acquisition rate of an excellent Leadership Development program:

Applying the Framework to a Specific Example

Why is it that the people who could most benefit from Leadership Development, benefit the least from it, and what can we do to make a difference?

Explore insufficient mastery of Change-Readiness Skills - Look at how certain individuals respond to discomfort. How do they respond when they are angry, hurt, or frustrated? Those are deep emotional response patterns that will often come up as a result of the discomfort associated with certain changes. Identifying people's response patterns to discomfort and providing them with skills to respond more effectively to discomfort is the first key to making difficult change simple.

Assess if Unlearning needs to be managed - We used to think about adopting new ways of doing things in the same way we think about putting on a new coat of paint. We used to believe that whatever was there on the wall before would simply be covered, once we introduced the new color. However, in some situations, and Leadership Development is often one of those situations, people already have strongly reinforced behavioral and thinking patterns in place. A Leadership Development program that is focused on managing the acquisition of the new, without correctly managing the letting go of preexisting patterns, will typically result in repeated efforts to establish the new color, with the preexisting layer constantly resurfacing. Knowing how to manage the Unlearning-relearning process allows us to facilitate the letting go, to make room for the acquisition of the new.

Evaluate if the different systems in the brain are being engaged - One system engages awareness and motivation (understanding what I need to do differently, how to do things more effectively, and why it's good for me) and the other engages deeper emotions, behavioral formation, and behavioral change. Both systems need to be correctly engaged for new ways of doing things to be adopted in a sustainable way. When the best Leadership Development programs do not engage both systems, people may leave with increased awareness, insights, and understanding, but if the behavior-forming system in the brain is not correctly engaged, these won't be adopted into practice in a sustainable way.

Identify and overcome a wide variety of invisible resistance responses - When Unleatning is required, the re-wiring that goes with it will create discomfort. The way people respond to this discomfort can be blunt and obvious resistance, or it can be hidden, quitely blocking progress in ways we haven't noticed before. Neuroscience offers us a new way to look at resistance to change, helping us pinpoint a wide variety of change-blocking responses that would otherwise stealthily prevent people from adopting skills provided in the Leadership Development program.

Ask yourself, is there an effective accountability structure in place? - Adopting new ways of doing things, especially when Unlearning is involved, is a process that takes time. it requires repeated practice, preferably in small chunks, over time. However, because Unlearning creates discomfort, most people will not keep practicing the new skills provided in the Leadership Development program without an effective accountability structure to support them through it.

Will Using Neuroscience Principles Make a Difference?

Engaging what we know about how the brain works to support difficult change goes a lot farther than getting the least engaged individuals to benefit from Leadership Development programs. Among many other things, it gives us access to new techniques and principles to overcome:

  • Lack of buy-in.

  • Passive and active resistance.

  • Negativity towards change.

  • Disengagement.

  • Fixed mindset (shifting to a growth mindset).

  • Internal conflicts.

  • Lack of trust.

It removes difficult change obstacles and supports the success of team development efforts, improves communication, overcomes difficult situations in individual coaching, ensures adoption of cultural change, increases the benefits of performance improvement and makes a difference in numerous other change areas like inclusion and diversity that require the adoption of behavioral change to achieve desired outcomes.

Ask us more about free materials, training, and certification that KCI provides to allow coaches, consultants, and HR leaders to successfully support people through difficult change.

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