Great Leaders Rewire Brains

photo of Laurie EllingtonBy Laurie Ellington

When it comes to implementing a new strategy or practice within an organization, the organizational culture will have a massive say in whether implementation succeeds or fails. The challenge for leaders, then, is as stubborn and persistent as it is natural: Culture will not change without resistance.

Stuck in the Past

Organizational culture includes values and beliefs that are deeply embedded in an organization’s psyche. Although culture provides a stabilizing effect in organizational life, it has a powerful influence on perpetuating the status quo. Layered throughout the organization, culture pushes back against the disruption associated with change you want to see. Shifting it requires changing long-entrenched habits.

Neuroscientific discoveries highlight that many of our conventional leadership approaches to changing these habits are actually keeping us stuck in old habitual patterns. Some of these approaches include incentives and threats, advice giving, and telling people what to do. Perhaps this has something to do with the frustration associated with trying to change organizational culture. Part of the problem lies in our efforts to try to break these habits. Breaking habits doesn’t work too well. In fact, trying to break habits often further embeds the behaviors you want to get rid of. Fortunately, neuroscience also tells us that creating a new habit is not that difficult for the human brain to do. 

Creating New Habits

As a leader, you hire people to make your job easier. You take risks and confront issues. If you want to change the culture of your team or organization, you need to put attention on creating new habits. This allows you to focus on the success of those big picture projects that take your leadership and your organization to the next level.

Most people think of habits as everyday behaviors you can see. This is true, but habits also include ways of thinking, emotional responses to people and situations, and belief systems. These are all hardwired in the brain at a neurobiological level and running on autopilot most of the time throughout the day. For you to be successful as a leader, you want to be in control of the habits that are running in the background for you. You also want to ensure that the habits running in the background of the people on your team are in line with the vision.

The Power of Plasticity

We now know that the brain is like plastic and can change throughout the lifespan. Neuroplasticity is our brain's ability to rewire itself with experience. The brain can create as many new pathways as it desires. It can change architecturally and functionally. The possibilities are unlimited. It just takes attention and focus on what you want vs. what you don’t want. Focus and attention on what you want gives you solutions faster. When you arrive at solutions faster, you are more successful. Leaders who understand how the power of focus is leveraged to change culture have moved away from the old outdated belief system that put limits on the human potential for change, learning and growth. High performing leaders have updated their thinking around how to create new ways of thinking and being in the workplace based on the latest findings in how the human brain responds to people and change. They are learning how to use neuroplasticity to create behavior change and reinforce the thinking habits that support learning organizations. 

Interrupting Deep-Rooted Belief Systems

To shift the culture of an entire organization, there needs to be an understanding that everyone is part of the "organizational brain" and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Contemporary findings in neuroscience inform us that we are neurobiologically connected and our brains are communicating with each other very quickly at a subconscious level. Culture is playing out with automatic habitual ways of thinking, believing, responding and behaving—most of the time outside of our awareness. Changing the culture of a team or organization involves the interruption of these deep-rooted belief systems that lie below conscious awareness. If you want to change organizational behavior, you have to help people rewire their brains. Hardwired habits have neural correlates in the brain in the form of maps or pathways. This means that new neural circuitry in the habit part of the brain has to be embedded as a part of the change process. 

What Works? Coaching

One way to rewire the human brain and change culture in an organization is to use a coaching approach. Leaders who apply the art of coaching to the workplace have more effective conversations that assist others in discovering solutions on their own that lead to positive change. Specifically, a brain-based coaching approach takes into consideration how the brain functions and uses knowledge from modern brain science to help people move change forward. This is very different than telling people what to do, giving advice or using incentives and threats to get people to do what you want them to do. It is solution focused and action oriented. A coaching approach can even be used in everyday conversations. The skills involved in effective coaching conversations help others develop new ways of thinking and being that move the needle on culture change within an organization rather than preserving the status quo. 

Where to Start?

To get started, put your attention on asking more and telling less. The good news is this saves energy, as it is easier to be deeply curious than it is to deal with the pressure of needing to have all the answers.

By approaching organizational change as a cultural change, and by approaching culture change from a neuroscientific perspective, leaders will be better equipped to create new habits that will support and enhance the organization's ability to successfully implement and adapt to new strategies and practices.

Cultivating Resilience through Coaching

Healthy (coaching) relationships activate the growth of fibers that integrate the brain and facilitate self-regulation. Watch Laurie Ellington's presentation to learn more about resilience, neuroscience and coaching and to view additional presentations from the 2019 Coaching Webinar Series.

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