We live in the age of expediency. We love our 10-minute oil changes, drive-through restaurants and microwave ovens. We want what we want, and we want it now. That works for some things, but when it comes to making changes in either ourselves or our companies, changes take time.
There’s a good reason for this. Simply stated, it’s because the human brain likes to know what’s going on, and it takes a little time for our brain cells to develop new pathways so the change is considered normal. Whenever change is presented, it’s like our brains go, “Warning! This is different! This could be dangerous!” This is why most people dislike change.
In reality, it’s not so much that people dislike change, it’s that they dislike rapid change.
Neuroscience is the study of the anatomy and physiology of the brain, and over the past few decades, scientists have learned much. Thankfully, their findings can help us understand how to create and implement effective change, both in ourselves and in our organizations.
One key to success in this effort is understanding how the amygdala works. The amygdala can be thought of as the part of our brain that checks for normality. If everything is sailing along smoothly and predictably, the amygdala says, “Cool,” and life goes on just fine. But if we’re confronted with change, or if someone says or does something that the amygdala perceives as a threat, then our neocortex – the rational thinking part of our brain – tends to shut down and control is sent to the amygdala.
Think of this process as a survival mechanism. If something out of the ordinary is perceived, our amygdala fires up our capability to fight or run, and when that happens, we can’t expect much in terms of rational thought or even rational conversation. Thus, physiologically speaking, our brains just don’t like rapid change.
However, if we understand brain mechanics, we can better facilitate the change process. One key to this is understanding neurogenesis, which is how the brain rewires itself. The good news is that scientists have learned that neurogenesis does not stop, thus putting to bed the notion that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You definitely can. Think about the elderly grandfather who learns how to use email so he can regularly communicate with his grandchildren. The motivation is there, it just takes a little time for his brain to grow new neurons so he can use the email program.
As one example of how the brain grows new neurons, think about learning how to ride a bicycle. At first the process is awkward, but after some time and practice the skill is acquired. And, because the skill is often learned early in life, the neuropathways are strong – leading to the saying, “It’s just like riding a bike.” You’ve learned it; you can do it.
The same concept applies to learning how to drive a stick shift. The first few times are clunky, as you must think through every step of the process, but before long you’re humming along in fourth gear and you don’t remember shifting to get there. That’s the power of neurogenesis. Our brains literally grow new neurons so that a new “normal” exists there.
As another example to show that people are actually ok with change, all we need to do is walk through any home improvement store. These stores are often crowded in the summer with people buying things so they can make changes in their homes and yards. The thing to remember is they are bringing about the change because not only have they had time to think about it, but they also gave their own input to the change! And this is the key to bringing about change in one’s professional development as well as in one’s organizations.
People want to give input about the change being proposed
People need time for the change to take root in their brains, what scientists call neurogenesis
With this in mind, here are four basic stages of incorporating change.
Unconscious Incompetence. This is not knowing how to do something because we don’t know it’s possible. It’s like a five-year-old not knowing about shifting gears in cars, or an entry-level new hire not knowing anything about strategic planning. They are unaware these options even exist.
Conscious Incompetence. This is when someone learns something is possible, but isn’t good at doing it because he or she lacks sufficient experience. In driving a stick shift, it’s those first attempts at driving where there’s lots of clunking and stalls. In strategic planning, it’s not knowing what factors to take into consideration.
Conscious Competence. The third stage is where things may look proficient, but a lot of conscious effort is still required. When driving, it’s having to think when to brake or how far to push the accelerator when taking off from a traffic light. In strategic planning it’s consciously going through a checklist of what to consider.
Unconscious Competence. Stage four is when your brain has grown sufficient neurons to maneuver through a problem without consciously thinking about it. When driving a stick shift it’s finding yourself in fourth gear at 50 miles per hour without remembering shifting there from a dead stop. In strategic planning it’s like having an innate grasp of what to expect, what to look for and what to do.
One more example. As an instructor, I know that clients will remember about 20% of what is taught in an eight-hour workshop. But if I spread that learning out, teaching one hour a week for eight weeks, retention of that material goes to nearly 80%.
The idea in all of this is that we can’t have instant gratification when it comes to change. Our brains need time for a new normal to be created, and that’s just the way the science works.
– Dr. Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. For more than 30 years he’s been working with teams and individuals (1:1 coaching) to help them achieve excellence. He was also teaching Emotional Intelligence since before it was a thing. Reach him by email at DanielBobinski@protonmail.com or his office at 208-375-7606.