Your Brain on Change

man on elephant

Those of us that are of a certain age probably remember the ad ‘this is your brain on drugs’ with the egg sizzling in a frying pan. A very effective visual. You can argue whether it was an effective campaign.

There is a visual I’ve been using recently to help explain the neuroscience of change. Jonathan Haidt originally talked about it in The Happiness Hypothesis and it was made famous by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch.

Picture a rider and an elephant going down a path. The rider is the rational, thinking part of your brain. The elephant is the emotional part of your brain. The emotional brain is far older evolutionarily than the thinking brain. It is so old that some people refer to it as the reptilian brain. This is the area of the brain that responds to the environment. When danger is perceived, it triggers the flight or fight response. It is here that you determine whether you will take on the ‘danger’ or flee from it.

Under normal circumstances, it is surprisingly easy for the rider to control the elephant. The rider can guide the elephant down the path and make it comply to his or her wishes. Now introduce change. The brain perceives change as a potential danger. Why? Because it is uncertain, something we can’t predict, something that we have less control of than our current situation. And, with this potential danger, the emotional brain takes over. Think of an emotional elephant. One trying to decide whether to fight or flee what it has encountered on the path. How easy is it for the rider to control that elephant? The rider needs to put the rational aside and work with the emotion.

So, when you’re leading change, you need to make sure you are communicating to both the rider and the elephant. The rider needs to talk about what is happening, what the timeframe is, how it will be implemented, etc. The elephant needs to talk about the fact that change can be difficult and scary, it needs to have its emotions recognized, it needs to have an opportunity to vent its concerns and to replace the negative emotions with positive ones that allow it to move forward. Once the emotions are part of the conversation, the rider and elephant can begin working together again.

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