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Vol. LXV, No. 5
March 1, 2013

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Create a ‘Toward’ State
Author Rock Applies Brain Research to Change Management

Your team gets downsized, you’re relocating members to smaller offices, you’re shuffling their pet projects and your way of doing business has got to change.

How do you make it work when change is perceived as a threat? What makes an organizational-change event succeed?

The answer lies in the science of the brain, according to Dr. David Rock. His recent talk, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” launched the 2013 Deputy Director for Management Seminar Series in Masur Auditorium.

Dr. David Rock applies brain science to leadership.

Dr. David Rock applies brain science to leadership.

Rock coined the term “neuroleadership,” a field exploring the neural basis of leadership and management practices. He and his colleagues at the NeuroLeadership Institute, an international consultancy, are bringing together neuroscientists and other experts to build a new science for leadership development.

“We are living in complex, changing times,” Rock said. “Uncertainty is increasing.”

Although there’s mounting pressure on leaders to grasp the fundamentals of change management, Rock showed that 33 percent do not support change and 39 percent of employees resist change.

Result: 70 percent of organizational change initiatives currently fail.

“Leaders need to ask how they can prepare their teams for change,” Rock said. What’s needed now is a brain-based change model.

The brain is the most complicated thing in the known universe, he said. “And change is perhaps the second most complicated.”

If you understand the brain and anticipate the way it perceives change as a threat, you can predict your staff’s resistance to change and find ways to minimize the threat. Your goal is to influence your team to approach change with interest.

Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute discusses breakthrough studies of neuroscience and its implications on leadership.

Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute discusses breakthrough studies of neuroscience and its implications on leadership.

Photos: Bill Branson

Rock calls this a “toward,” or reward, state. It counters the reflexive “away,” or threat state.

He then sketched on flipcharts, showing how the brain’s limbic system and prefrontal cortex work under stress.

The limbic system sits on top of the brain stem and involves emotions and memory. The much smaller prefrontal cortex is in the front of the brain and is central to thinking things through.

A perceived threat, such as change, can hamper prefrontal cortex functioning.

“The more worked up you are, the harder it is to think,” Rock said.

Even a small threat can inhibit the brain’s creativity, invention, new thinking, judgment and impulse control.

How can leaders help others reinterpret change as opportunity rather than threat?

Rock cited NIH-funded studies in social cognitive and affective neuroscience, the science of how brains interact. These breakthrough studies using functional MRI show how deeply social the brain is and how social pain mimics the appearance of physical pain on these scans.

Rock and his colleagues have summarized the results of these studies in a framework of five social situations: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness (SCARF). Each has implications for productive leadership, especially in helping teams navigate change.

For example, if you shuffle their pet projects, your employees may go into threat mode because they may perceive an attack on their status. It’s better to invite them to make choices wherever possible and to share their opinions, which may enhance their perceived status as well as their sense of certainty and autonomy.

“If you want to grow people, have them come to their own insights,” Rock said.

Change demands imagination. “Take 3 to 4 minutes to imagine what may happen with SCARF,” he said. “It may be the most useful time you spend on a project.”

NIH’ers can watch the lecture online at under Past Events.

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