A neuroscience perspective on chaos and change management for a Brexit world

Profile picture for user jmilne By Janine Milne August 1, 2016
How lessons from neuroscience can lessen the pain of change - a post-Brexit Janine Milne talks to Hilary Scarlett, author of Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-based Practical Guide to Managing Change.

hillary scarelett
Hilary Scarlett

The UK is in a state of turmoil over a month on from the Brexit vote. It’s exactly the sort of uncertainty and chaos that the human brain absolutely hates. 

As Hilary Scarlett, author of Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-based Practical Guide to Managing Change, says:

Change that is both unpredictable and uncontrollable is a combination that is very stressful to the brain. Because we can’t predict it, we feel we’ve got no control.

It’s a well-worn cliché to say that people don’t like change, but neuroscience – the study of the brain and nervous system – reveals that our brains really do struggle when faced with the unforeseen and uncontrollable.

Simply by understanding more about the brain, what it needs and how it works, believes Scarlett, gives leaders a better lens through which to look at people and understand why they behave a certain way in the face of change. 

Scarlett’s book comes up with some practical brain-friendly techniques that leaders can use to dampen down stress and keep employees engaged and productive – even if the business is going through the turmoil of redundancies, a merger or other disruptions. Scarlett explains:

It all goes back to survival; that’s the key driver. The brain wants to protect us and to survive. So if the brain can predict what’s going to happen to us, it’s better placed to protect us, which means the brain likes certainty.

The brain uses up about 20% of our energy, so what it also wants to do is conserve energy where it can. Change is more demanding and requires more effort from the brain and the brain doesn’t like that either. 

When we haven’t got a certainty, it’s like an ‘error alert’ goes off in the brain – the flight or fight – and blood literally goes to those parts of the brain which will help us run away or fight and away from the prefrontal cortex which is where we do our considered thinking and planning and emotional control. So the brain can’t settle until it has certainty again.

Even if the news isn’t what we want to hear, our brains are better able to cope with bad news than in a void, observes Scarlett:

Actually, the brain can deal much better with bad news than no news and there are lots of examples of where people given bad news feel happier and more satisfied in some ways than people who still don’t know. Because once they’ve got the bad news, they can begin to plan…it’s the uncertainty that’s unnerving and distracting.


Scarlett saw this in action working as a consultant helping leaders in a bank after the financial crisis of 2007/2008. Counter-intuitively, the people who knew their division was going to be sold off in about 18 months were hitting their targets and had higher engagement levels than those in the main bank whose jobs were not under immediate threat. Although the main bank jobs were safe, the general uncertainty in the banking sector made those employees so anxious about their future that it affected productivity.

There’s a lot of emphasis in change management on communication. While keeping people informed is critical, neuroscience research also highlights the importance of giving people the space to work out the implications of the changes for themselves and to reach their own conclusions in their own time. Scarlett expands:

I think organizations and leaders spend a lot of time thinking about where that organization needs to head and what their strategy should be and then once they’ve made that decision they go into broadcast-mode – this is what’s happening these are the reasons – and then they wonder why employees aren’t accepting of those ideas.

Research shows that if we reach our own insights about why this is a good course of action, we are much more committed to it as opposed to being told by someone else.

It’s also important that leaders manage their own emotions: anxiety is contagious and it’s devilishly difficult to hide, notes Scarlett:

If you’re getting stressed out or worried or angry or whatever, your team is going to pick up on it even if you think you’re supressing it successfully. We also sweat cortisol so if we’re very stressed it’s actually coming out of our skin.

Neuroscience also points to the importance of social connections at work. We instinctively recognize the importance of team working and feeling valued in that team. Being ostracized from the group “activates the pain mechanism in our brains”, says Scarlett. If someone doesn’t feel part of the group or the team, then that is going to affect their ability to perform and to make decisions.

The great thing about applying neuroscience in the workplace, says Scarlett, is that little things can mean a lot:

The beauty of neuroscience is that you don’t need to wait for a cultural revolution in your organization to apply this, you can all go away tomorrow and by a slight shift in your behavior and what you do, you can make a real impact and you don’t need the rest of the organization to come with you.

My take

It’s still very early days for neuroscience and this article only skims the surface of how it can be applied in the workplace, but it is increasingly beginning to make waves among organizations and in HR.

What's also appealing is that it only takes small changes to make a big impact.