Your brain is lazy

Photo of a gray tabby kitten asleep on its back on a fluffy white blanket.Yes, your brain is lazy.

Not only your brain – everyone’s brain.

The brain is a greedy organ. Proportional to its weight, it gobbles up far more energy than any other organ in your body – more than your skin (yes, skin is an organ), digestive tract, lungs, and so on.

So the brain prioritizes habit and routine, because that’s efficient. It creates wide-open neural pathways for the things you do consistently, and resists building new neural structures – because that takes extra energy.

And that’s why your brain has a hard time with change, especially significant change, and especially change that’s imposed from outside – such as organizational change initiatives, which are famous for inciting resistance and cynicism.

Change creates confusion. Change requires learning, which – especially as we get older – feels awkward. (Of course it does. You’re building new neural pathways.)

Uncertainty about what’s happening also feels awkward. Brains want to avoid ambiguity in favor of knowing about outcomes; obviously, change is full of ambiguity and uncertainty. And within a corporate setting, change can bring up anxiety (ambiguity and uncertainty) about job security, new job requirements, what needs to be learned, and so on.

And then you have the infamous amygdala hijack and fight-freeze-flight mode.

So what can you do about it?

Understanding that this is a neuroscience thing, and not an annoyingly-emotional-and-resistent-employee thing, is the first step forward. I especially find that when I explain the neuroscience to highly logical and technical people – software engineers or accountants, for instance – their eyes get big and they lean forward to hear more.

They don’t always appreciate what comes next, however, which is that logic is not the answer.

And you know this. If you’ve ever been upset about something (and who hasn’t), and someone oh-so-helpfully tells you to calm down, it’s not so bad, sleep on it and you’ll feel better, you’re over-reacting – all that just makes things worse, not better.

Back to the neuroscience: when someone is emotionally reactive, they’re disconnected from their brain’s logical processing portions. The logical functions literally go offline, leaving only the emotional limbic system and the survival instincts of the amygdala.

So the first step…

… is to ask what I call the magical, transformative question: what’s the worst thing about this for you?

Why is it magically transformative? Because – when asked sincerely – you’re demonstrating that you care, and you’re not trying to minimize their experience by laying logic on them (which they can’t hear right now anyway). You’re asking, with a genuine desire to know: out of all the craptastic things about this situation, what’s the worst.

And the bigger reason is that this question requires a logical answer.

It requires a compare-and-contrast function, which is a logical processing function. So even though they’ve lost touch with logic, when you address their emotional state (“what’s worst”) in this way, they have to come up out of that emotional reactivity, at least to some extent, in order to give you an answer.

(I don’t have children, but I understand this works well with teenagers…)

The second step…

… is to listen and paraphrase for understanding.

And that’s the topic of a whole different article, which I’ve not yet written. For now, I’ll just say: don’t argue with what they tell you.

Instead, see if you can adjust their participation in the change initiative to ease them past this “worst thing.” If they tell you, for instance, that they already have an overloaded to-do list, help them prioritize; if they’re concerned about learning new technology, emphasize the availability of training; and so on.

But don’t jump into that too quickly, because then you’ll just be back to throwing logic at them when they can’t hear you!

Want to learn more about this? Contact me and we’ll set a time to talk about how to make change successful in your organization.