Vijay G. Chander

Vijay G. Chander

Vijay G. Chander is a Senior Change Management Specialist working for TD Bank with Innovation, Technology and Shared Services team in Canada and Certified Change Consultant (Enterprise Agility by Enterprise Agility University)

Understanding Change Management from a Neuroscience Perspective (Part 1)


The world is too big for us.
Too much going on, too many crimes,
too much violence and excitement.
Try as you will, you get behind in the race,
in spite of yourself.
It’s an incessant strain, to keep pace…
and still, you lose ground.
Science empties its discoveries on you so fast
that you stagger beneath them in hopeless bewilderment.
The political world is news seen so rapidly you’re out of breath trying to keep pace
with who’s in and who’s out
Everything is high pressure.
Human nature can’t endure much more!

The above excerpt was published in Atlantic Journal dated June 16th, 1883.  The pace of change is still relentless and will continue till the humanity exists.   Our organizations have changed, the way we work has changed, technology at work has changed by leaps and bounds in the past century. When the change initiatives in organizations fail, the change managers are quick to point fingers at resisters and the rest of the organization is ready to blame poor change management implementation.  

In this two-part article, my focus will not be on finger pointing but will explore the human physiological reasons for change resistance and change fear. In the second part of this article, I will focus on the brain-based Conversation techniques for the Change Practitioners to help facilitate communications with individuals and teams that can help overcome resistance or fear of change. 

Why Neuroscience?

Neuroscience provides a lens through which we can understand, “Ourselves and Others.” Understanding more about our brains, what drives them and what gets in the way will help Change Managers to build empathy by engaging hearts and minds during any kind of change or transformation
The word “change” despite its ubiquitous nature is immediately feared because it challenges the status quo. It is normal to feel frustrated with constant change. Why do we feel threatened during uncertain times or situations? The first step in understanding the fear of change is to start by learning about our brain.

The Human Brain

The human brain has remained same for the past 2 million years. It weighs about 1.3 kilo grams; it consumes more than 20% of all our energy and has not grown larger or shrunk. However, our brains still operate as though we are still living in a hunting, gathering society of early Homo sapiens.  The very essence of our brain in such situations or any threatening situation is to survive.  The human brain is hardwired to seek certainty and avoid threats. Inherently, human brains resist change.   When we look at our work in the last 200 years, it has completely changed but human brain has not changed to keep up with changes in our workplaces.  Our brain is not designed to for 21st century workplace.  It is imperative for those leading Organizational Change need to understand how the brain perceives and processes change from this perspective. Understanding our brain and how it deals with “Change” teaches us to work with physiology, not fight it.

©2015-2020 Neuro Leadership Institute

Figure 1: The Limbic System

Figure 2: Activation of the Limbic System

Amygdala, a roughly almond-shaped mass of grey matter inside each cerebral hemisphere along with the limbic brain and the reptilian brain, together they are referred to as “Limbic System” (Fig.1). The limbic system also is the seat of emotions. In the time of crisis or changes, this portion of brain lights up and dictate our actions.

©2015-2020 Neuro Leadership Institute

In times of crisis or perceived crisis, the blood flows from the pre-frontal cortex to the limbic system resulting in irrational behavior. It is important to note not only for the change practitioners but also leaders that the “Distrust” emotion is triggered in 0.07 seconds. The distrust emotion is controlled by Amygdala (Fig. 2)
Brain’s Survival Mechanism: Our brains have been optimized for survival and the moment it perceives any threat it switches into survival mode. Brain continuously scans for threats and is always in default alert mode. Change practitioners and leaders need to be aware of this fundamental fact of human brains especially when speaking about change. The following points further emphasize the way our brains operate:

  1. It’s all about SURVIVALAvoid Threats and Seek rewards
  2. Drive for SURVIVAL means our brains want to be able to predict and make sense of the world”
  3. During uncertainty/ any changes, takes away brains ability to predict and sends our brains into a THREAT RESPONSE— Fight, Flight or Freeze

Compared to reward response, THREAT RESPONSE:

  • Kicks in faster
  • Is much stronger
  • Lasts longer
  • Increases heart rate
  • Increases stress hormone (Cortisol)
  • Reduces Dopamine (helps in relaxing)

©2015-2020 Neuro Leadership Institute

Figure 3: Brain’s Organizing Principle

Figure 4: Activation of Prefrontal Cortex

Once the distrusts kick in, our perception, Cognition, Collaboration and Creativity is impacted. During the times of any change or threat our brain’s ability to perceive any information decreases because we take in less information as our limbic system has kicked in. Similarly, our cognitive abilities are temporarily impaired, we are less inclined to collaborate as our cognitive resources are focused on threats and not social interaction. In addition, we are less likely to notice subtle signals that allow for any insight to emerge. Brain’s perceives threat stronger than good when faced with change or threat (Fig. 3)

Trusts resides in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. It is responsible for rational thinking, engagement, executive function, and judgement (Fig.4). Trusts takes about 0.10 seconds to trigger when compared to distrust, which is much quicker to kick in i.e., 0.07 seconds. Change Managers and leaders in the organization need to be very sensitive about triggering distrust. We need to overcome this evolutionary obstacle. The SCARF Model from David Rock helps in understanding how the brain process threats and rewards.

©2015-2020 Neuro Leadership Institute

Figure 5: SCARF Model

The SCARF model helps us to understand how the threats and rewards are processed in the brain, thereby influencing a wider range of human behaviors. SCARF defines five domains of experience that activates strong threats and rewards in the brain. The model is built on three central ideas:

A. The brain processes many social threats and rewards with a very similar intensity as physical threats and rewards (Lieberman and Eisenberger, 2009)

The capacity to make decisions, solve problems, and collaborate with others is generally reduced by a threat response and increased under a reward response (Elliot, 2008)

The threat response is more intense, more common, and often needs to be carefully minimized in social interactions (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Fineenauer, & Vohs 2001)

The SCARF model is relevant for organizational leaders, change practitioners, facilitators, trainers on helping to understand ultimately influence others especially when it comes to change. SCARF is a cognitive tool, a heuristic, for quickly and easily recalling the potential impact of your action on others (others’ actions on you), thereby enabling the possibility of different choices.
In the second part of this article, I will focus on the Brain-Based Conversation techniques for the Change Practitioners to help facilitate communications with individuals and teams. These techniques are based on Brain’s Organizing Principle.


  1. Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E, Finkenauer, C & Vohs, K.D. 2001 Bad is Stronger than good. Review of General Psychology: 5(4) 323-370.
  2. Dispenza, J. 2007 Evolve your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind.
  3. Liberman, M and Eisenberger, N 2008 The pains and pleasures of Social life: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience approach NeuroLeadership Journal
  4. Mlodinow, L. Elastic-Unlocking Your Brain’s Ability to Embrace Change
  5. Rock, David and Cox, Christine SCARF in 2012: Updating the Social neuroscience of collaborating with others. NeuroLeadership Journal Issue Four.
  6. Rock, D. Your Brain at Work
  7. Scarlett, H. Neuroscience for Organizational Change -An evidence based practical guide to managing change 2nd edition

Vijay G. Chander is a Senior Change Management Specialist working for TD Bank with Innovation, Technology and Shared Services team in Canada and Certified Change Consultant on Enterprise Agility (Enterprise Agility University)

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