Dr. Erik Reis
Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it will always be easy. Humans are resilient, but we’re also resistant to change. We’re wired that way, which is why change can be so intimidating, scary, and challenging.
Our brains are plastic, malleable, and fertile for quickly learning vast amounts of information when we’re young. But as we learn right from wrong, good from evil, and safety from fear, our brains start to lay down pathways that reinforce these changes for quicker decision-making and cognitive efficiency. The subconscious mind memorizes these environmental and societal triggers and hardwires these pathways into the foundational layers of our software.
In these early stages of development, the brain can rapidly change, grow, and adapt to any environment. But that’s for better and for worse.
Growing up in a stressful or troubled home may teach you to have certain beliefs about parents, society, relationships, and money that may not be rooted in reality. Laying down these early experiences can shape our perspectives and habits later in life, causing a host of potential troubles and outcomes that can shape the trajectory of an individual’s ability to make money, create healthy relationships, or accomplish goals.
Leading Change Is Possible
But not all is lost. Change can be one of the most fulfilling things to happen to a person, especially when that change is intentional, guided, and directed towards a goal or achievement. It can be even more transformational when provided by a respected peer intentionally leading change through team-building exercises, experimentation, and servant leadership.
Tomorrow’s leaders must be able to facilitate change with their teams and colleagues because of the rapidly changing world around us.
Regardless of your childhood experiences, we’re all fighting an uphill battle because our brains weren’t designed to be open to change—they were designed for safety. The human brain is wired to keep us safe and secure, with hopes of giving us a higher chance to stay alive, propagate our genetic lineage, and allow us to raise our offspring.
While this may be a simplistic approach, it’s the hard truth. Change hasn’t always been a part of this equation, which is why it can cause us significant angst and tension when we’re actively pursuing or going through it.
5 Ways Essential for Leading Change
If we genuinely want to lead change, we must look into changing the brain. And to change the brain, there are a few guiding principles that we need to utilize. Below are five ways essential for leading change.
1. Lead by Example
Actions will always speak louder than words, and this is the ultimate way of facilitating change because it empowers others to join in. Humans are social creatures—we always have been and always will be.
When someone on your team goes through a transition, makes a positive change in their life, or acquires a newfound passion for something, it’s infectious. People become consumed with the change and start to initiate change themselves. This helps to facilitate leading change because it shows others that if you can do it, they can do it, too.
In many ways, we need to see others do something before we get enough confidence to do it ourselves. Take the four-minute mile as an example.
Before May 6th, 1954, no human had ever broken the four-minute mile time, and during this time, it was thought that it was physically and physiologically impossible to do.
Yet, Roger Bannister, a university track and field star and student at Oxford, broke the four-minute mile in poor weather conditions and considerable crosswinds. And while this was an amazing feat within itself, the following is even more remarkable.
Within two years, nine other people had broken the four-minute barrier. So, what changed, you may ask?
Their psychology and expectations of what they were capable of accomplishing.
Seeing is believing. And when you lead by example, you end up leading change. You provide belief in others that they can do the same thing. That’s authentic leadership.
2. Meet Your People Where They’re At
It’s challenging to meet someone where they aren’t. In fact, it’s impossible. This is one of the most commonly overlooked components for leading change because it’s so simple.
Meeting your people where they’re at is imperative for change because it creates a solid foundation to work from.
Asking a colleague or friend to change or behave in a foreign way will feel negligent and distant, causing them to feel stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed by the gap separating where they are versus where they’re being asked to meet.
This dissonance can present in many different ways in the boardroom and at home, ranging from anxiety to depression and disconnect, eventually leading to changes in communication, eye contact, and even work habits.
When you can meet someone where they’re at, you meet them where they’re comfortable. Since change is uncomfortable, starting in a place of safety can create a trajectory of significant improvement in a short period because one feels secure to take risks and make a change. This psychological safety is imperative for creating change and adopting new habits.
The next time you find yourself leading change, make sure you first follow in someone else’s footsteps to make sure you’re meeting them where they’re at.
3. Provide Psychological and Emotional Safety
If actions speak louder than words and meeting people where they’re at is the foundation of change, then providing security and a safe place for change is the roadmap to successful change. Our brains are hard-wired to respond negatively to change because it takes us out of our comfort zone and challenges our brain’s ability to predict what will happen next.
In moments of uncertainty, our brains trigger stress responses that decrease our cognitive processing capacity to allow us to prepare for a “fight, flight, or freeze” outcome. Unfortunately, neither one of these options is beneficial because it takes away from our critical thinking bandwidth and leads to poor decisions, which can compound over time and significantly affect the bottom line.
By creating an environment that facilitates and encourages making mistakes and being open to change, people can start to engage in behaviors that will change their outcomes.
This is a big problem with leaders who micromanage their team members and colleagues. They create an environment of fear and stress, which changes the company culture and changes the company’s brainpower. As a result, a company’s end outcomes are determined by the daily decisions and the ability of its employees to be open to change.
Give your team the freedom to make mistakes and learn through the process. Leading change doesn’t have to be difficult.
4. Facilitate “Flow” States of Productivity
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow states of consciousness found that those who engaged in a flow state could increase an individual’s perceptions of feeling greater enjoyment, energy, and involvement with their work. This is the ideal state of mind that we should all strive for in our personal and professional lives.
Achieving a group flow state of mind is the ultimate way of leading change because it creates an environment of productivity, fulfillment, and maximum achievement. And the best part about it is that people feel good while they’re in the process of doing it, too!
When individuals find these flow states of productivity, they’re actively immersed in their work and facilitating change right before your eyes.
And the benefits of being in a flow state are staggering:
- Increased emotional regulation
- Heightened enjoyment and fulfillment
- Greater happiness and engagement
- Higher levels of learning and skill development
As someone focused on leading change, this is the mecca of optimal growth and productivity.
When leaders cultivate environments that facilitate flow, hard work becomes easy, complex tasks turn into doable projects, and satisfaction rates skyrocket. Flow states are the ultimate factor for leading change because they provide immediate feedback, a sense of fulfillment, and greater outcomes.
5. Be Patient and Open to Giving/Receiving Advice
Change doesn’t happen in an instant, and it can take time to find the correct dose of change to see the results we’re looking for, but that doesn’t mean the process can be rushed or expedited.
Change can be scary, but it can also be addicting. For example, finding the correct rate, rhythm, and feel for leading change is an art form within itself, which is why there are so many opinions on the topic.
When leaders exercise patience with their colleagues, they provide additional support and show them that it’s okay to go at their own pace. Unfortunately, the process of leading change isn’t linear, so leaders need to set realistic expectations for their teammates and be open to feedback.
Leaders who ask for advice, not feedback, reinforce psychological safety, allowing colleagues and peers to feel safe to make mistakes, ask questions, and challenge themselves without being worried about the repercussions of failing. When individuals are provided the opportunity to provide input, they feel more aligned with the team and company goals, enhancing their willingness to put more effort and energy into projects and finishing tasks.
But this cycle is a two-way street. Your team members need your advice to improve their efforts and stay aligned with overall goals. The advice doesn’t need to be harsh criticisms, but it must reinforce short-term and long-term goals so your people can keep their eye on the prize without losing the forest through the trees.
With the current state of uncertainty within companies and businesses, efforts should be aligned on eliminating as much uncertainty and stress as possible to keep people out of a “fight, flight, or freeze” state of mind.
We’re All in This Together
Leaders create future leaders. And when you’re leading change, you will be surprised to see who steps up to the plate to help you facilitate that change.
Great leaders have ripple effects across their company that create shifts in momentum and company culture, which is why metrics and data points can’t always track their outcomes.
Community is at the heart of leading change because a business is the sum of its people. Whoever said “business isn’t personal” clearly didn’t understand business because it is personal. It involves building relationships and trust and facilitating growth throughout multiple aspects of a company.
Leading change doesn’t have to be difficult when you’re focused on using the right tools and tactics to create it. It can be one of the most rewarding things a leader can do, which is why we need more people actively pursuing it!
Change is inevitable, and when you understand how to facilitate it by changing the brain, it can be easy.
*Dr. Erik Reis is the Co-Founder and Director of Health and Wellness at Nobody Studios, a rebel venture studio focused on the radical ideation, innovation, and creation of people-first start-up companies.
*This article first appeared on the lifehack.org website