Putting the science into change communications

Hilary Scarlett

When she joins us as a keynote speaker at EuroComm 2017, Hilary Scarlett will talk about change from a neuroscience perspective. To give us a preview, she shared some insights on the topic with IABC EMENA Region board member Kasha Dougall.


Our theme for EuroComm is “Transformation”. How have you personally experienced significant change or transformation?

Setting up my own business and becoming self-employed after working for many years in a consultancy was a key moment for me. I wondered if I could do it and whether it would actually work. It was tough leaving a familiar structure and people I really liked. I wondered what it would be like working, initially, on my own. Would I be able to win enough work? How would I deal with IT problems?!

But it was an extremely liberating experience. Now I can make choices about the kind of work I want to do and whom I work with; I work for what I truly believe in.

Many years ago I was in a role where I was very unhappy. It’s interesting that when we go through difficult times it helps us be more empathetic towards others who are struggling. We know what it feels like and how tough it can be.

Why is empathy so important?

Empathy is a very important and useful emotion at work. It’s not just ‘nice’ to show empathy: empathetic leaders tend to get more out of their teams. Neuroscience tests have shown that if we are in the presence of an empathetic person, we are more likely to stick at difficult tasks for longer and try harder. We are social creatures and research shows that we focus and collaborate better if we feel someone cares about us.

You recently published a book called Neuroscience for Organizational Change. What is neuroscience?

Simply put, neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, including the brain. Applied neuroscience is how we take the learnings out of the lab and make them practical and useful for leaders and managers in companies.

Why is change so difficult? Why is organisational transformation tough?

Change that is unpredictable and uncontrollable – that combination of the two – is particularly stressful to our brains. It’s all about survival. We want to be able to predict what’s going to happen next, so that we can protect ourselves. During change, we can’t predict the future. This creates an unsettling and threatening environment for the brain. It’s as if an error alert has sounded. Our brains are distracted until we have certainty again.

Our brains are also lazy and want to conserve energy. Our brains like habits because they are mentally less taxing for us. Change means doing things differently, which requires more mental effort.

How can we appease the brain during times of change to reduce stress?

Even just acknowledging that change is not easy, and being aware of what is happening, can help. We need to be empathetic towards ourselves: if we are finding organisational change hard, it is not surprising as our brains don’t like it. Any steps that can give more certainty to a situation will be helpful, especially from a communications standpoint. Guaranteeing a regular communication process will have a positive impact, even just sending weekly updates, for example. The

Anything that can offer more certainty to a situation is helpful, especially from a communications standpoint. Regular communication has a positive impact, even just sending weekly updates, for example. The organisation might not be able to give certainty about the change, but it can give certainty around how employees will be informed.

Another thing we can do is to set short-term goals for people. This enables employees to ‘tick off’ what they have achieved, which is rewarding to the brain and changes the chemicals in it. It feels good and puts our brains in a better place to take on the next challenge.

What advice do you give managers leading teams through change?

The brain wants to avoid threats (this goes back to survival). We are much more sensitive to threats than we are to rewards, which is the reason that negative feedback has greater impact than positive comments. Someone can tell you five things they loved about what you did but it is a single criticism that will stand out in our minds. People become even more sensitive to ‘threats’ and criticism when they are going through change. During

People become even more sensitive to ‘threats’ and criticism when they are going through change. During transition, leaders tend to go into “broadcast mode”, trying to sell their solutions. Giving employees more time to come to their own conclusions about why this is the right course or direction makes our brains more receptive. This makes it easier for the brain to accept the need for change and to commit to implementing it.

Choice is extremely important to our brains. We are all less committed to change if we feel something has been imposed on us. Leaders will make a big difference if they involve teams in the transformation process where they can, and communicate regularly with them.

Why do you think neuroscience is particularly important to communicators?

I think it is essential. If we can understand a little about how the human brain works, then we can work with it rather than in ignorance of it. Sometimes leaders can be skeptical about the collaborative and inclusive approach that internal communicators advocate. Neuroscience brings science and evidence: leaders are often more open to a scientific approach that brings credence to what we do.