Science Unlocks Secrets to Helping Employees Adapt to Change

March 15, 2017
How can you help employees accept change? Like the song says, you've got to accentuate the positive.

By now you’ve likely stumbled across the recent John Hopkins University study in which neuroscientists found that when people see something that is associated with a past reward, their brain automatically emits dopamine. This explains a lot, considering my mouth still waters when I see chocolate cake even though I haven’t eaten gluten in over 10 years. If we look at the flip side of this response, it goes without saying that our brains don’t emit dopamine when we are faced with something that we don’t associate a reward with.

Put another way, if you present someone with an idea, situation, or change that they’ve yet to experience, it’s doubtful that they are going to feel good about the change, even though the evidence you provide suggests otherwise.

Interestingly, I’ve observed this same response when helping teams adopt changes in how they communicate and work. Changes in frequency and methods of communication, for example, are rarely met with a positive response, but more likely criticism and doubt as to their potential effectiveness.

You see, this study actually explains a lot.

For years we’ve known that most employees don’t easily accept change, but now science provides further support about why this is. Fortunately it also identifies what we can do to turn the tables. This very same study also identified that our brains will emit dopamine even if we don’t recognize the reward as being present.

This is gold when it comes to helping employees accept change, because it suggests a few things.

First, the results support the fact that if an employee believes change is a direct result of his ideas or feedback, there is a better chance that he will accept the change. An idea someone suggests as a solution is often based on past experiences that wouldn’t be offered if the experience was negative in some fashion.

Second, focusing heavily on the positive impacts a change will have not for the organization, but for the employees, has the potential to allow employees to connect the positive outcome with a positive experience. For example, high productivity levels that save time can also indirectly increase revenue. If there were a profit sharing or bonus program in which this savings and profit could be shared with employees, it would be sure to provoke positive reflections.

Lastly, to help employees accept change this study identifies that focusing continuously on the positive benefits (rather than the risks, pitfalls, and obstacles) has a better chance at creating buy-in as a result of the positive feelings this would create in employees.

These points may seem commonplace and overly simple to help employees buy in to change, but in my experience this is exactly what is needed. Too often we overly complicate change, the risks associated with it, and the negative impacts it can have on employees. Instead we need to focus heavily on getting employees involved early on, keeping the impacts simple and focused on what’s in it for the employees, and continue to reinforce the positive despite the obstacles and challenges that may present themselves.

I’m not suggesting that every change initiative is simple or doesn’t consist of multiple challenges. Heck, anyone that has ever gone through an ERP implementation will know this isn’t the case. What I am suggesting is that a constant focus on the positive and connecting benefits to employees is something that as leaders we need to do continuously if we are going to create the buy-in and acceptance of change we desire our employees to have.

Shawn Casemore, president and founder of Casemore and Co, Inc., is a consultant, speaker and author of Operational Empowerment: Collaborate, Innovate, and Engage to Beat the Competition, published by McGraw-Hill.

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