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You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks: The Power of Neuroplasticity

Accordingly to McKinsey, only 30% of corporate change initiatives are successful. The other 70% fail.[1] Why? Because humans are naturally resistant to change. Changing the way we think or behave requires energy, and our brains conserve energy for tasks we perceive to be more urgent or rewarding. So unless a change initiative is borne out of a strong desire to address a threat or reward, our brain’s motivation to do the work needed to achieve sustainable change is minimal.

But that doesn’t mean change is impossible. Neuroscience has proven that the brain is malleable. In fact, our experiences mold and shape our thoughts over our lifetimes. Our habits change. Our beliefs change. This is the concept of neuroplasticity.[2]

Let’s use a hiking analogy. Imagine your brain has many hiking paths within it. When neurons fire during brain activity, they’re like hikers who travel along pathways. The more often they travel that path (a habit), the easier and faster it is for them to stay on the path. Occasionally, a hiker decides to go off the path. This is usually triggered by a traumatic or joyful life event that catches you off guard; or it can be proactive, like the pursuit of a new goal. Sometimes the path that the hiker once knew is simply no longer an option, like in the case of organizational change. Here’s where neuroplasticity comes into play. Each time your neurons fire in that new direction, they gradually create a new pathway until it is as worn-in and as comfortable as the old one. But it’s not so simple. The brain prefers routine. So in order to avoid the extra brain power needed to carve out a new path, your “hiker” neurons will often return to using the old, more comfortable path. Such is the fate of failed New Year’s resolutions and unsuccessful organizational change.

However, with focus and repetition, you can harness the power of neuroplasticity and change the way you and your teams think and behave.

There are four main steps to rewiring the brain:

  1. CARE: If there is no pending threat or reward, it’s likely you and your team won’t have enough motivation to achieve sustainable change. Before change is possible, you and those you lead must care about the issue enough to apply the necessary focus to carve out new neural pathways.
  2. NOTICE: After caring is established, you need to identify the gap between where you are now and where you would like to be. Don’t be afraid to give this step the time and reflection it deserves.
  3. EXPECT: Your perceptions shape your reality. Research has shown that our expectations of a situation (negative or positive) play a huge role in what we focus on, what we hear, and ultimately what transpires (the placebo effect). Manage your internal commentator to expect the best outcome, and you’ll have a big advantage when it comes to reshaping the brain.
  4. FOCUS: Here’s where the real work begins. You need to consistently direct your and your team’s attention to the change you are trying to achieve. Consistent focus creates chemical and physical changes in the brain––paving new neural pathways and ensuring that they become the default––for long-lasting, personal and organizational change.

Our brains are malleable, for better or worse. If we’re not intentional about the changes we want to make, our brains will be shaped by factors that are outside of our control. And although it is a challenge to rewire the brain, with some determination and a little insight into neuroplasticity, we can enact lasting change…even in the workplace.

[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/the-irrational-side-of-change-management

[2] https://thebestbrainpossible.com/neuroplasticity-brain-mental-health/


About the Author

Sandra McDowell, MA, PCC, CPHR, SHRM-SCP

As the founder and voice behind eLeadership Academy™, Sandra McDowell helps leaders and organizations increase performance and well-being by leveraging neuroscience insights to harness the untapped power of the brain.

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