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Creating Organizational Change in the Workplace Through Neuroscience

Creating Organizational Change in the Workplace Through Neuroscience

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By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

With the introduction of technology, the workplace has changed and continues to change at a fast pace. Many senior leaders recognize that they have to keep up with change to stay competitive.

In theory, this concept of constant change in the workplace may be obvious to organizations. Human resource departments can work with managers to influence an organization’s environment through transforming its culture, values, systems and processes. But what about the people who work in that environment?

One of the foundational theories of the change management movement was a model developed by Kurt Lewin in the 1940s. His model has a three-stage process – Unfreeze, Change and Refreeze – to encourage organizational change. Lewin equated his model to changing the shape of a block of ice. For example, if you have a large cube of ice and want to change its shape, what do you do?

First, you melt it (unfreeze). Then you mold it (change) and solidify the new shape of the ice (refreeze). Translated into the workplace, Lewin’s theory means that if you know an organizational change is coming and you have a process, you can prepare yourself and the workforce for the transition.

“Motivation for change must be generated before change can occur. One must be helped to re-examine many cherished assumptions about oneself and one’s relations to others.” – Lewin

Lewin was a physicist and social scientist by trade, so his concept focused on how to motivate a person to want to change. How do you condition a person to accept change?

Although Lewin’s model is helpful for laying a foundation for a change management initiative, it takes time. Changes are also dependent on workers’ emotions through their behavior and willingness to accept inevitable changes.

Implementing the Lewin Model in an Organization

Lewin’s model of organizational change is very comprehensive and addresses all aspects of any organization. During the first phase (unfreeze), you would:

  • Conduct a needs assessment to determine who and what needs to change.
  • Present your information and “get the green light” from the senior management team.
  • Create opportunities to discuss why change is needed through an open forum.
  • Implement a system to solicit and address concerns and challenges about the change.

The next stage (Change) highlights the importance of communication by:

  • Keeping everyone informed on a regular basis by communicating information about the change initiative.
  • Dispelling rumors about what changes are occurring and why they are occurring.
  • Collaborating with staff and obtaining their buy-in so they feel empowered to take action when necessary.
  • Involving the workforce in the process at every step, so they feel a sense of ownership.

The final stage puts processes in place to sustain organizational changes:

  • Establish the changes in the organization’s culture.
  • Develop ways to sustain the changes.
  • Provide support and training.

The Transition

Lewin’s work has been praised by many as an effective tool in getting people to accept change.  However, the amount of time it took to see the results of changed behavior was viewed as a disadvantage of the model.

Some change management experts were not satisfied with the results, and turned to cognitive psychology as an alternative. Cognitive psychologists focused on what was going on inside of a person’s brain, especially as it related to transitioning to something new. Theorists in this area proposed that change would be successful if we allowed people to use their brain, via problem solving and goal-setting skills, to determine their destiny.

For example, business consultant Jim Collins uses arriving at a train station as an analogy of how people mentally process what their next step should be. Should they stay on the train and continue on the journey? Should they get off? Should they stay on the train and change seats? How can leaders facilitate the process and what is their role as the “conductor”?

Neuroscience’s Impact on Leadership and Organizational Change

With the popularity of leaders serving as coaches versus managers only, a new model of organizational change has risen. It focuses on the one-on-one relationship between leaders and their followers. Leadership expert Dr. David Rock authored a book, Your Brain at Work, which introduces the concept of neuroleadership. The term highlights how neuroscience can be used to study organizational development and change in the areas of change management, innovation, creativity and employee engagement. This emerging field showcases the correlation between human interactions and leadership effectiveness.

How Does Neuroleadership Relate to Change Management?

People fear change, and the fear occurs in their head. An individual’s brain is designed to “be the fittest” and survive all threats. Change is perceived as a threat. Leaders must coach their followers from a cognitive perspective by getting into their heads and convincing them that the change is to help, not to destroy.

Is neuroleadership a paradigm shift from the Lewin model of organizational change? It depends on how you look at it.

Looking at how a person thinks about and perceives change seems like the next logical step after the Lewin model. Additional research could assist in making Lewin’s change stages a smooth transition for organizations.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at APU. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision, and an ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.

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