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

change-agility focus leadership neuroscience May 05, 2021

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: How do you change the way you think? First you need to care about the issue. If there is no pending threat or reward that is looming, or no intrinsic or extrinsic motivational factors, it’s likely you won’t have enough motivation to direct your attention to achieve sustainable change.
  2. NOTICE: If you do care, and have a motivating factor inspiring you to change (whether it is threat- or reward-based, or an intrinsic or extrinsic motivator), the next step is to notice your current actions, beliefs or behaviours, and what you need to unlearn or let go.
  3. EXPECT: Your perceptions shape your reality. The concept of “what we expect is what we experience” is otherwise known as the placebo effect. Research has shown that what we expect a situation to be like (negative or positive) plays a huge role in what we focus on, what we hear, and ultimately what transpires.
  4. FOCUS: Here’s where the real work begins. You need to direct your attention to the change you are trying to achieve and apply focus. Paying attention to what you want creates chemical and physical changes in your brain (it creates new neural pathways). Focused attention and practice lead to 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.

From an agility perspective, it’s great to know that we can reshape the brain. It’s important to recognize that neuroplasticity is not innately positive because it can also work against us. For example, if we focus on unhealthy habits, those habits will grow. Strong leaders focus on the power of right actions to shape the brain for the outcome we want. What we focus on grows our attention density, so it is important to focus on the right things.

[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 insights from cognitive science to harness the untapped power of the brain.

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