The Science Behind Why Organizational Change Is Hard On Your Employee’s Brain

The Science Behind Why Organizational Change Is Hard On Your Employee’s Brain

“The key to thriving in times of change is resiliency. When you learn to leverage change, uncertainty and even adversity to create long-term growth and resilience you, your employees and your business will succeed.”

Adam Markel

Navigating organizational change is a process that often challenges not just the structural, but the human elements of a company as well. It is often resisted by employees because we are hard-wired to resist change in any capacity. The science behind why organizational change can be particularly taxing on your employees reveals a complex interplay of psychology, neurology, and human behavior.

Change, by its very nature, introduces uncertainty. It pushes individuals out of their comfort zones and into uncharted territories. This shift can trigger stress responses, impact decision-making, creativity, and overall well-being. That means understanding stress and how your employees react to it is critical to your organization.

What Is Organizational Change?

Organizational change encompasses the processes, strategies, and practices through which a company alters its structure, plans, operational methods, technologies, or organizational culture to adapt to internal and external pressures, achieve new goals, or improve performance.

This change can take many forms, from restructuring departments and adopting new technologies to shifting company policies or introducing innovative business strategies. At its core, organizational change aims to ensure the organization remains relevant, competitive, and capable of meeting the evolving needs of its market, employees, and stakeholders. It’s a deliberate approach to acknowledging challenges and seizing opportunities in pursuit of growth and sustainability.

How Does Organizational Change Affect A Team As A Whole?

Organizational change, while aimed at propelling a company forward, can have profound effects on a team as a whole. The ripple effects touch every aspect of team dynamics, communication, morale, and productivity.

Impact on Team Dynamics

Change disrupts established roles and routines, leading to uncertainty. Team members might feel insecure about their positions or unclear about their responsibilities, which can strain relationships and alter the team’s cohesion. New structures or processes might necessitate adjustments in how team members collaborate, potentially disturbing well-established team dynamics.

Communication Challenges

As an organization navigates through change, communication can suffer. Information might not flow as seamlessly as before, leading to rumors, misinformation, or a sense of being left in the dark. Effective communication is crucial during these times, yet it’s often during periods of change that it becomes most challenging to maintain.

Morale and Engagement

Uncertainty and fear can significantly impact team morale. Employees might feel anxious about job security, workload increases, or their ability to adapt to new systems and processes. This anxiety can lead to decreased engagement, with team members potentially withdrawing and becoming less invested in their work and the success of the change initiative.

Productivity Fluctuations

The stress and uncertainty associated with organizational change can distract employees and reduce their focus, leading to drops in productivity. Learning new systems or adjusting to new team structures requires time and energy, which temporarily divert attention from day-to-day operations and goals.

Scientifically, How Does Organizational Change Affect Your Employees?

Organizational change activates a complex response within the brain, influencing employees’ feelings, behaviors, and overall work performance. Scientifically, the impact of such change can be understood through three primary effects: 

  1. Increased Stress

The human brain is wired to respond to uncertainty with stress. Neurologically, change triggers the brain’s amygdala, signaling a threat to the status quo, which in turn releases stress hormones like cortisol. This heightened state of alertness in turn, impairs cognitive functions such as problem-solving, memory, and concentration. For employees, this means that even as they’re expected to adapt and embrace new challenges, their brains are operating under constraints that hinder their ability to do so effectively.

  1. Decreased Trust

Trust within an organization is grounded in predictability and reliability—two elements that are often in flux during periods of change. From a psychological standpoint, when employees witness shifts in structures, processes, or leadership without clear communication or understanding, it can erode their trust in the organization. This loss of trust is linked to the brain’s processing of social interactions; perceived inconsistencies activate regions associated with emotional pain, leading to a defensive posture that hampers open communication and collaboration.

  1. Reduced Emotional Safety

Emotional safety in the workplace is the assurance that one can express thoughts, questions, and concerns without fear of repercussion. Organizational changes unsettle this sense of safety, activating our brain’s fear circuits. When employees feel their job security, competence, or value to an organization is threatened, they’re more likely to experience emotional distress. This distress can diminish their sense of belonging and inhibit their willingness to take risks or contribute ideas, stifling innovation and engagement.

What Does Your Management Team Need To Know Before Issuing Planned Changes?

As leaders, when we embark on a journey toward change, it’s our duty to remember that it is not a mountain to conquer in one leap. Before we set the course for any planned changes within our organization, there are critical elements any management team needs to deeply understand. This understanding is not just about the “what” and the “how” of change, but more importantly, about the “who” and the “why.”

Understand the Impact on Your People

First and foremost, recognize that change affects each individual differently. It’s essential to consider the emotional and psychological impact these changes will have on your team. How will their daily routines be altered? Is there a clear understanding of why these changes are necessary from their perspective? Anticipating these questions and concerns is the first step in crafting an approach that respects and addresses the needs and fears of your employees.

Clarify the Why Behind the Change

For change to be meaningful and embraced, its purpose must be clear and compelling. Your management team must fully grasp the reasons behind the changes being implemented. This goes beyond business metrics or operational efficiencies. It’s about connecting the dots between the change and its broader impact on the organization’s mission, values, and goals. When the team understands the “why,” they can communicate it effectively, inspiring others to buy into the vision.

Assess Organizational Readiness

Evaluating the organization’s readiness for change is crucial. This includes understanding the current organizational culture, the resilience of your team, and the resources at your disposal. Are there systems in place to support the transition? How will communication be managed? Assessing these factors beforehand ensures that the ground is fertile for the seeds of change you’re about to sow.

Develop a Comprehensive Communication Plan

Communication is the lifeblood of effective change management. Your management team needs a detailed plan that outlines not just what will be communicated, but how and when. This plan should address both the logistical aspects of the change and its emotional impacts, offering clear channels for feedback and questions. Transparent, frequent, and empathetic communication can significantly reduce uncertainty and build trust during periods of transition.

Anticipate Resistance and Plan for It

Resistance to change is a natural human response. Before rolling out changes, it’s vital to anticipate where resistance might come from and understand its root causes. This understanding allows you to address concerns proactively, involve key stakeholders in the process, and adapt your strategies to mitigate push-back.

Commit to Support and Training

Finally, ensure that plans are in place to support your team through the transition. This might involve training programs, mentorship, or additional resources to help employees adjust to new processes or technologies. Demonstrating a commitment to your team’s growth and success through change not only facilitates a smoother transition but also reinforces a culture of continuous improvement and learning.

Best-Practices For Managing Unplanned Organizational Change

Managing unplanned organizational change requires a blend of agility, clarity, and empathy. As leaders, our ability to steer our teams through unexpected changes can significantly impact our organization’s resilience and success.

Embrace Agility and Flexibility

Unplanned changes often require quick decisions and adaptations. Cultivating an agile mindset within your leadership and teams ensures that you can respond effectively to changes as they arise. Encourage flexibility in plans and processes, allowing for rapid pivoting without losing sight of your overarching goals.

Maintain Open and Honest Communication

Transparency is key in managing unplanned change. Keep communication channels open and ensure that messages are clear, honest, and frequent. This openness helps to reduce uncertainty and speculation, which can lead to anxiety and misinformation among your team. Explain what you know, what you don’t, and how you plan to move forward.

Support Your Team Emotionally

Change can be unsettling, and unplanned changes even more so. Recognize the emotional impact these changes may have on your employees. Offer support and understanding, and be accessible to address concerns and fears. Creating a supportive environment where feelings can be openly discussed so it helps build trust and resilience among your team.

Focus on Core Values and Vision

During times of upheaval, your organization’s core values and vision can serve as a guiding light. Reaffirming these principles provides a sense of continuity and purpose, helping employees to stay motivated and aligned with the organization’s objectives, even as the landscape shifts.

Encourage Employee Involvement and Feedback

Involving your team in the change process can foster a sense of ownership and empowerment. Encourage feedback and suggestions on how to navigate the challenges ahead. This collaborative approach can not only yield innovative solutions but also strengthens team cohesion and morale.

Prioritize Quick Wins

Identify opportunities for quick wins—small but significant achievements that boost confidence and morale in the face of change. Celebrating these successes reinforces the team’s ability to adapt and thrive, providing positive momentum during uncertain times.

Develop Contingency Plans

While not all unplanned changes can be predicted, having contingency plans in place for potential scenarios can help you respond more effectively. Regularly review and update these plans to ensure they remain relevant and actionable.

Invest in Continuous Learning

Unplanned change underscores the importance of continuous learning and development. Encourage your team to develop skills that enhance their adaptability, such as emotional intelligence, critical thinking, and problem-solving. This not only prepares your team for future changes but also contributes to their personal and professional growth.

Addressing Employee Stress, Fears & Resistance

Navigating the emotional landscape of employees during unplanned organizational changes demands a leadership approach rooted in understanding, empathy, and strategic communication. 

Addressing Employee Stress

Leaders must recognize that stress is a natural response to the unknown. It’s crucial to create an environment where stress is not only acknowledged but also managed constructively. Implementing regular check-ins, offering support resources, and encouraging open discussions about stress management can foster a culture where employees feel supported and psychologically safe. As leaders model a healthier relationship with stress and stress management in their actions they help teach employees that stress and all that comes with it can be navigated with grace and determination.

Mitigating Fear

Fear, particularly the fear of loss—whether it’s job security, status, or comfort with familiar processes—can paralyze employees and hinder adaptation to change. Leaders can mitigate these fears by ensuring transparent communication about the changes, including the rationale behind them and the expected outcomes. Engaging employees in the change process, allowing them to voice concerns, and actively participating in shaping the future can transform fear into ownership and proactive engagement.

Overcoming Resistance

Resistance often stems from a lack of understanding or a disconnect with the change’s perceived benefits. To overcome this, leaders should clearly articulate the ‘why’ behind the changes, connecting them to the organization’s broader vision and goals. Providing training and resources to navigate new processes or technologies can also reduce resistance, as it addresses the fear of inadequacy. Celebrating small wins and highlighting positive outcomes of the change can further shift perspectives, showcasing the benefits of adaptation.

Creating An Emotionally Safe Work Environment

In an ever-evolving world where change is the only constant, embracing resilience is more than a strategy—it’s a necessity. Resilience is the skillset that transcends the mere act of bouncing back. A resilient mindset is one that leverages challenges as a springboard for growth, equipped with greater wisdom and insight. 

Viewing the stress that naturally accompanies organizational change through the lens of resiliency transforms it from an obstacle to a catalyst for greater professional development. As leaders recognize the underlying causes of resistance and stress, they cultivate a culture that values adaptation and resilience. 

Now is the time to fortify your team’s resilience, to cultivate a culture that embraces change as a stepping stone to innovation and excellence. Let Adam Markel guide you in unlocking your team’s resiliency advantage, transforming the very essence of how you navigate change.

Managing Organizational Change & Creating a Resilient Team with Keynote Speaker Adam Markel

Fostering an emotionally safe environment isn’t just a nice-to-have—it’s a must. While navigating through constant change and uncertainty, resilience and adaptability become our greatest allies. Drawing inspiration from Adam Markel’s transformative insights, you and your team can be empowered to not manage organizational change with resilience and skill.

Adam Markel and the WorkWell mission is clear: to equip individuals and organizations with the tools and mindset needed to embrace change as a catalyst for growth and success. Through compelling keynote speeches and transformative coaching, Adam and his team provide a roadmap to build not just resilience but true Change Proof organizations.

Are you ready to seize the opportunities to improve your workplace productivity

Is your team poised to excel in the face of uncertainty and predictable changes? 

Find out how resilient you (and your team) are by taking our complimentary resilience assessment.

If you’re ready to explore how to approach change with greater certainty and ease, my keynote talks will help.  

Please get in touch with our team to schedule a private consultation today.

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The Science Behind Why Organizational Change Is Hard On Your Employee’s Brain

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Get Your Organization Resilience Ready

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Get Your Organization Resilience Ready

Become the future of work by harmonizing productivity and well-being in your workplace.

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