Artikel, 12.04.2024

“Change – with the brain in mind.” – Neuroleadership and its positive impact on change projects

Chiara Polverini, Head of People and Culture at workingwell, on neuroleadership and how this approach can be used for successful change management.

Chiara, what is behind the concept of neuroleadership?

This approach uses findings from neuroscience and offers leaders the opportunity to better understand the needs and motivations of their employees. With this knowledge, they can lead their teams in such a way that the different potentials can be developed, and cohesion can be strengthened.

Among other things, the reward and threat system in the human brain plays an important role here. The SCARF® model of the Neuroleadership Institute’s describes the five neurobiological needs which are: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

According to this, every person has a certain motivational structure. If a leader is aware of this, they can not only better understand the needs of their employees. They are also able to integrate them profitably into change projects.

So neuroleadership can be described as “brain-friendly leadership”? What exactly does this mean?

When people do not feel truly integrated within a system, a feeling of dissatisfaction arises which, in more extreme forms, can manifest itself in anxiety and pain. Neuroscience has shown that this social form of anxiety can be identified in the same places in the brain as physical pain. The opportunities for brain-friendly leadership lie above all in: mastering challenges, networking knowledge, living a culture of error and ensuring positive experiences. This means that an executive can have a positive impact on a person’s motivational structure through their own behavior.

What findings from neuroleadership can be applied to change processes in companies?

Our brains are ideally equipped for dealing with constant change. It can continue to adapt and develop into old age. The neuroleadership concept is based on this insight. We just have to understand change as a normal state. Neuroscientists call this adaptability of the brain neuroplasticity.

I would like to show you how to design a successful transformation from a brain-friendly perspective using the three phases of a typical change project in the workplace, as we normally offer our clients. Starting with the preparation phase, through the implementation phase and ending with stabilization.

And how do you get involved in change projects?

In the preparation phase, the first step is to determine why the change is necessary and how the process should proceed.

Defining an inspiring but realistic vision, a clear indication of what the result would look like after the transformation, must be the very first step – regardless of how small or large the transformation will be. Setting clear goals triggers the brain’s reward system. It releases dopamine [1] – the happiness hormone that reinforces positive behavior. Leaders can keep their teams motivated throughout the entire change process. They can do this by involving their employees in the goal-setting process at an early stage and obtaining regular feedback.

This sends a very clear message: Change may be inevitable, but everyone’s expertise and contribution is not only sought after, but also valued and taken into account. In my experience, this is a fundamental step in reducing the sense of threat and expanding employees’ sphere of influence.

In the preparation phase, the feeling of threat is minimized and, ideally, the foundation is laid for acceptance of the necessary change. How do you proceed in the implementation?

Once the vision and goals have been defined and the information has been shared at all management levels, the next crucial step follows. It is to form a cross-departmental group of employees who will serve as ambassadors for the change. To be successful, this group needs to be diverse and represent different functions. I always recommend including those who, for various reasons, feel more threatened by the change.

Successful change efforts require the use of positive role models to generate acceptance and enthusiasm for the proposed changes. A sense of belonging and community can activate our mirror neurons [2], leading to greater commitment and acceptance of change on the part of employees.

What else is important in the implementation phase?

The findings of the neuroleadership also show how important it is to simplify communication and minimize the flood of information during change initiatives. By presenting information in easily digestible chunks and using storytelling techniques, managers can reduce the cognitive load.

One of the most important things I have learned in recent years is to communicate even – and especially – when there is nothing “new” to share. It is precisely these phases that can become fertile ground for uncertainty, gossip and false information. Leaders also often have a certain information advantage and must therefore avoid the “illusion of transparency”. This means we need to shed the bias of thinking that what we know and what we have communicated is clear enough for everyone. The fact is: it usually isn’t!

We come to the stabilization phase. What is important here?

Change is much more than just a project. Companies need to see it as a continuous state in order to continue to grow, perform and retain talent. However, change is painful: our prefrontal cortex [3] becomes severely fatigued when we engage our working memory. And our basal ganglia [4] need to reorient themselves before they incorporate the new habits into the neural circuitry as routine. Throughout the change process, leaders need to reward the employees involved. So:

  • celebrate the success and focus on all aspects that went well,
  • bring people together as a community and emphasize their contribution to the process,
  • focus on reviewing what has been learned and recognizing new habits.

By recognizing how much the teams have contributed to the success with their participation and commitment, dopamine will be released again and employees will be eager to repeat the reward. Also important: the new habits are difficult to unlearn.

However, it is crucial that management is willing and open to evaluate and adjust aspects that were less successful than expected. Dealing with failure as a normal part of any process makes this normal and trains employees to become braver and more willing to try new things – which is what our brains like to do!

Finally, what is your appeal to employees and executives?

People like change – but people don’t like to be changed. With the right tools and a growth mindset, change becomes an extremely rewarding experience to grow from. The new normal starts in our brains! By recognizing and utilizing its potential, we give change a chance.

[1] Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is always released when our brain’s expectation system assumes that we can successfully complete a difficult task.

[2] Mirror neurons are nerve cells that are activated when an action is performed, observed or even just thought about. They are very important for social creatures. For example, they enable humans to recognize the different emotions.

[3] The prefrontal cortex is part of the brain and plays a role in the reward system. It helps to regulate the expectation of rewards.

[4] Basal ganglia are a group of brain structures. They are responsible for voluntary motor movements (voluntary motor skills), procedural learning, cognition and emotions.



Chiara Polverini

Chiara is a certified systemic change facilitator, systemic resilience coach and team coach. She obtained her certification in the area of “foundations of neuroleadership” at the Neuroleadership Institute. She uses the various and well-founded scientific tools to accompany people, with a focus on executives and management, on the path to change. She is Head of People & Culture at workingwell.



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