Neuroscience for Organizational Change: A book review by Bob Morris

Neuro for Org ChangeNeuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-based Practical Guide to Managing Change
Hilary Scarlett
KoganPage (2016)

How and why an understanding of neuroscience can help transform almost any organization

Human beings are effective change agents if driven by an understanding of the basic elements of neuroscience. That is to say, if they understand how the brain perceives and processes change, and what can be done to enable our brains to work at their best during times of uncertainty. According to my research sources, neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. Traditionally, neuroscience is recognized as a branch of biology.

However, it is currently an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as chemistry, cognitive science, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, medicine (including neurology), genetics, and allied disciplines including philosophy, physics, and psychology. The term neurobiology is often used interchangeably with the term neuroscience, although the former refers specifically to the biology of the nervous system, whereas the latter refers to the entire science of the nervous system and thus can include elements of psychology as well as the purely physical sciences.

So what?

According to Hilary Scarlett, “neuroscience helps to explain why we find organizational change difficult. More interestingly and more importantly, it provides clear guidance on what can be done to help people through change (and that is the focus in the chapters in Part Two of this book). Although still in its infancy, it is already proving immensely useful in brining to light what enables us to be focused, to learn, and to perform at our best.”

Those who lead organizational change initiatives face unique challenges. In their recently published book, Neuroscience for Leaders, Mikolaos Dimitriadis and Alexandros Psychogios offer what they characterize as “a practical and holistic approach to understanding and implementing the leadership brain,” adding that they propose “the brain adaptive leadership (BAL) approach as a way of thinking, feeling, and acting within organized social entities. Brain adaptive leadership is an attitudinal approach that individuals can follow in their attempt to recalibrate their brains and mould their behaviour according to lead projects, processes and people.”

These are among the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also shared to suggest the scope of Scarlett’s coverage:

o Fundamental facts and figures about the brain (Pages 15-26)
o Performance improvement (37-56)
o Social brain: leaders/managers (57-77 and 192-193)
o Emotions (79-109)
o Mindfulness (94-99)
o Social conformity (118-119)
o Biases (119-135)
o Communication (137-164)
o Storytelling (149-151)
o Planning change (165-183)
o Reflections on change (178-182)
o Content of masterclass (186-199)

I learned a great deal from Scarlett’s rigorous examination of how specifically neuroscience can help leaders to respond effectively to unique challenges in a global marketplace that seems more volatile, more uncertain, more complex. and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can remember. Hence the importance of developing neuroplasticity, “neuro from neuron and plasticity from plastic, meaning ‘changeable, malleable, modifiable’ — one of the most useful and exciting findings to come out of neuroscience.”

Scarlett goes on to observe, “neuroscience has shown that the brain has the ability to continue to learn and to restructure, well into our later years. You can teach an old dog new tricks, after all…Neuroscience has shown that the brain can change in response to experience, thought and mental activity. So, mental activity is not just a product of the brain but shapes it. It is the connectivity that changes in neuroplasticity: new synaptic connections form and existing snaps strengthen.”

This is no doubt what Alvin Toffler has in mind when, in The Third Wave (1980), he suggests, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Granted, this is by no means an “easy read” but it will generously reward those who read it — and then re-read it — with appropriate care. I am deeply grateful to Hilary Scarlett for the abundance of information, insights, and counsel that she provides, notably in the final chapter, “Applying neuroscience in the classroom.”

All organizations change, for better or worse. Those whose leaders manage change effectively will thrive. Those whose leaders don’t won’t.

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