What do change leadership and dopamine have in common?  Well, both have the potential effect on our brain of creating positive emotions and good feelings about what is happening around us. Let me explain why Change Leaders can use what we know about brain science to help their teams and organizations accept change, manage transition, and even drive adoption to large-scale operational transformation.

    In last month’s blog post, my colleague Dean Fulford showcased his learnings from an HBR article about how Leaders need to create trust by creating clarity and the linkages from research in Neuroscience. It reminded me of the great work I was exposed to earlier this year when I participated in The Neuroscience School program with Dr Irina O’Brien.

    Dr. O’Brien conducted and summarized research on what happens in the brain to encourage progress, motivation, and engagement (or flow).  I was particularly fascinated by the modules offered in her course where we discussed the brain’s reaction to certain scenarios and environments that can be constructed or reinforced with great leadership.

    Since a lot of the work I do is focused on helping individuals and organizations manage change, I want to highlight some of the key learnings from this program as well as other resources I’ve since explored, to bring you more insights on how you can effectively lead change and achieve higher levels of acceptance for any transition you may be leading.


    Lead change with the amygdala in mind

    As humans, we aren’t wired for change, in fact, quite the opposite. We resist change because our preference is for stability and familiarity. Resistance can stem from the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for threat detection and response to fear.  During change, the amygdala can trigger feelings of uncertainty and anxiety that inhibit acceptance of and adaptation to “new”.

    Effective change leaders recognize the brain’s natural inclination towards stability and develop plans that avoid the amygdala hijack and instead engage the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is responsible for cognitive control, decision-making, and emotional regulations. Aiming to communicate and encourage logical ways to analyze the changes allows for increased abilities to manage emotions, allowing you to facilitate a smoother transition.

    Tips for lowering amygdala triggers and engaging the PFC:

      • Create a clear direction and define what success looks like. Then communicate it to the organization or team …. and keep telling them!
      • Focus your messaging on the “why” (why is this important, what are the benefits to those you are speaking to and/or the organization) and be clear on what is changing, what supports will be put in place to help those through the change and what is NOT changing – this helps to provide a sense of control to the listener(s).
      • Spending time talking to your employees and those who may be most impacted by the change, giving them straight answers, information, and the ability to ask you questions, is the simplest and most effect way to ensure they can process and analyze the change.


    Lead with dopamine please!

    Dopamine is a chemical (neurotransmitter) that releases feelings of reward, positivity, motivation, and pleasure. It plays a crucial role in the brain’s response to change. When individuals anticipate or experience a positive situation or outcome, dopamine is released, reinforcing the behaviours that created this release and creating a sense of achievement.

    As a Change Leader, effective, planned, and purposeful communication and engagement can encourage and trigger a dopamine response.  Encouraging employees to explore the new changes and see how their efforts align with the organizational change leads to positive outcomes or a sense of progress; thus, dopamine is released. This in turn motivates them to get involved, participate more, and enhances the overall perceptions of the change process.

    Tips for triggering more dopamine release to drive engagement:

      • Break the overall change into smaller, “bite-sized” pieces. This can be milestones or tasks to be consumed by those most affected by the change or in how you communicate and reinforce the change. Progress is meaningful, no matter how small the task, leading to a feeling of achievement. And when people achieve things, they are more motivated to continue, learn and achieve the next thing, creating an upward spiral to continue to do more.
      • Effective change leaders can positively influence engagement. Through a clear vision of the future, leaders can generate enthusiasm, energy and commitment in their employees and inspire them to perform beyond expectations.
      • Look for ways to boost competence and motivate exploration through positive feedback.
      • Being action-oriented increases the ability to enter an engaged state; so, demonstrating the change you want and encouraging others as they explore and try new things, will be motivating!


    Effective change leadership is contagious

    Leadership behaviours are contagious! Research has shown that a leader experiencing being in flow (being fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, fully connected involvement, and enjoyment) can “infect” their employees. Leadership behaviours are contagious due to a neural phenomenon called mirror neurons. These neurons become “fired” both when an individual performs an action or when they observe someone else performing the same action. When Leaders exhibit positive and adaptive behaviours, such as embracing change, their team members are more likely to mirror these same behaviours.

    The brain’s mirror neuron system plays a critical role in the spread of the leadership team’s behaviours. When individuals observe leaders effectively managing change and displaying positive attitudes, their mirror neurons fire, creating and perpetuating a sense of connection; making change-adaptive behaviours something good to catch!

    As a Change Leader, demonstrating positivity and encouraging the benefits of the change helps to spread and have a contagious affect which creates more adaptable culture, where change is naturally and easily accepted.

    Tips for spreading Change Leadership contagion:

      • Involve employees in the change process. Seek input, encourage diverse perspectives, and involve team members in decision-making whenever possible. This collaborative approach enables more involvement and empowers employees, making them feel valued and invested in the change journey.
      • Change leaders who demonstrate their own adaptability and resilience inspire others. By navigating challenges with composure and flexibility, leaders model the behaviours they expect from others, building trust in their leadership during uncertain times.


    Lead change with the brain and build trust

    Trust is the secret sauce to any healthy relationship and is so critical to ensuring change is not only understood and accepted but that those leading the changes are believed and followed. Effective Change Leadership is fuelled by Trust!

    Understanding the brain processes of trust has significant implications for effective change leadership. Leaders can leverage these insights to build and maintain trust within their teams, throughout the lifecycle of any change being implemented. We’ve mentioned many already and it never hurts to reemphasize …

    The amygdala is a key player in processing emotions and evaluating threats, thus it is central in contributing to the perception of trust. It assesses what is happening around us, enabling employees to determine whether a situation or leader is trustworthy. The amygdala’s response is influenced by past experiences and the context of the interactions or situation.

    The prefrontal cortex, responsible for cognitive functions such as decision-making and reasoning, also contributes to trust assessment. It helps employees weigh the risks and benefits of trusting others and processes information to form a more nuanced judgment.

    Mirror neurons are those specialized cells in the brain, which play a crucial role in empathetic responses and the development of trust. Mirror neurons support the understanding of others’ emotions and intentions, fostering a sense of connection and trust.

    Finally, oxytocin, impacting the dopamine pathways to feelings of reward and motivation, often referred to as the “trust hormone” or “love hormone,” plays a key role in social bonding, empathy, and cooperation. Oxytocin is released during positive social interactions, creating feelings of trust and connection.

    Tips for building trust in the brain:

      • Establish open and transparent communication to activate the brain’s trust-building mechanisms. Leaders who share information honestly and consistently create an environment where employees feel valued and informed.
      • Demonstrate reliability through consistent fulfillment of promises and commitment to stimulate the release of oxytocin, enhancing feelings of trust among team members.
      • Empathetic leadership activates mirror neurons which fosters emotional connection and trust. Leaders who demonstrate understanding and support for their team members’ emotions build stronger bonds.
      • Leading by example is truly the most effective way to build trust. When change leaders demonstrate the desired behaviours, attitudes, and values associated with the change, they set the standard for their teams to follow.

    Neuroscience provides valuable insights into the mechanisms of trust formation and maintenance, which really is the basis of any healthy relationship and allows good change leaders to be GREAT. By understanding how the brain processes trust-related behaviours, leaders can establish ways to build trust, foster positive relationships, and create an environment conducive to effective change acceptance.