Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

“Your brain on change management: advancements in neuroscience shed new light on the physiology of Change Management” guest post John P. Barbuto, MD

“Engage the hearts and minds of people in change”: motherhood!  This phrase is foundational in most change management practices.  However, it means something completely different to a man who has held a “mind” in his hands.  In this guest post Dr. John Barbuto, a most rare hybrid – a neurologist and a change management practitioner – enlightens us as to the history of this notion, points us to some great resources and challenges us to innovate our discipline with this new information.

Where did the notion of minds vs brains come from?

In 1641, René Descartes published “Meditations on First Philosophy” where he laid down the foundations for his brain concepts, later known as “Cartesian Dualism”: the notion that the mind and brain are separate (while both Plato and Aristotle had earlier opined on the subject, it is Descartes who is generally cited as originator of the perspective).

In 1641 the concept made sense. The basic anatomy of the brain had been a subject of study since three hundred years BC – the early anatomical studies of Herophilus and Erastistratus. But, in the 17th century function of the brain was only a matter of speculation. In fact, some anatomists of the middle ages even threw the brain out, observing it didn’t do anything obvious. Unlike the heart it did not move when active. Unlike the kidneys it did not produce anything obvious. It was not until 1791, when Luigi Galvani published work on the electrical stimulation of frog nerves, that the true character of function within the nervous system began to be appreciated. Descartes, in the mid 1600’s, was obliged to form his opinions based on observations that the anatomy of the brain was increasingly known but its function did not obviously derive from that anatomy. A duality – one part structure, one part “other” – was an acceptable hypothesis regarding how it might work, particularly for the recognized complexity and obscurity of the intellect.

What have we learned more recently?

However, that was 1641. In the current era we are armed with new information from fabulous new diagnostic machines. For example, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) is now showing the actual brain activity behind thought itself. Early studies are even showing that specific brain activity predicts behavior better than self-report of the study subject. Falk, et al., reported in the Journal of Neuroscience that activity in a certain frontal region of the brain predicted successful outcome of smoking reduction better than study subjects could predict regarding themselves.1 Essentially, data from the scan helped to know their minds better than they did.

Going further, Indre Viskontas and colleagues have shown repeatable firing in specific brain cells of the temporal lobe in association with subjects being shown pictures of relevant individuals.2 Essentially, this takes activity of the mind down to the level of individual neurons in the brain!

In this era, the rift between the mind and brain is being closed. Armed with the current view, we must shift our interpretations of behavior in related disciplines. Change management is such a discipline.

Leadership has long been viewed primarily as a realm of command and control. To lead was to determine a course and then tell followers what to do via exerting some manner of social pressure. In more gentle versions of leadership the first step was to “get people on board” (a nautical reference to obtaining a crew), and then tell them what to do.

More recently the complexity of organizations and the wealth of specialized individuals within organizations has driven recognition that information synthesis is now too complex for leaders to do unilaterally. To one extent or another, a more cooperative organizational strategy encourages each person to contribute his/her specialized abilities toward the overall goals of the organization. In this era increased emphasis is placed on winning “the hearts and minds” of members of organizational teams. But, what do we think “hearts and minds” are in this new physiological context?

What about “hearts” vs “minds”?

Broadly, hearts are emotions; and, minds are intellects. Today, winning hearts and minds means generating positive emotional responses and generating convincing intellectual arguments. Today this is ultimately an issue of working with brain physiology. The “heart” is broadly located in the limbic system of the brain. The mind is broadly located in the frontal lobe of the brain. (Indeed, in Falk’s study it was the medial prefrontal cortex [part of the frontal lobe] which signaled when smoking cessation was likely to stick).

A new look at Change Management

Therefore in this era we need a new look at change management. Where once it might have been an arena focused on changing minds, it is now revealed as an arena focused on gently changing brains. Some of the difficulties of the field may now be fathomed. We may begin to delve more accurately into why we may fail to accomplish change which makes logical sense – but fails to be convincing. We may begin to understand what a changed mind really requires.

Two recent books explore extensively the topics of motivation and decision making. In “The Hidden Brain” Shankar Vedantam explores the perspective that choice and behavior are not controlled by simple logic.3 They are controlled by a complex amalgam of emotional and motivational issues. Most notably, choice and behavior may be meted out by an unconscious – a portion of the brain designed for fast, automatic action, but not well suited to cool-headed intellectual decisions. Similarly, in “How We Decide” Jonah Lehrer includes chapters titled, “The Predictions of Dopamine” (a neurotransmitter) and “Fooled by a Feeling”.4 Both chapters reference brain physiology as confounders of logic. Both books follow the thesis that “rational” decisions can neither be automatically presumed even from smart people nor derived from a purely rational and academic argument of data. It is simply more complicated than that – a complexity born of the way evolution has pieced the brain together.

Change managers in this era will benefit from learning more about how motivations are derived from habits, values, expectations, and beliefs. Where change is incremental and mostly tactical then change is relatively easy to accomplish because it is unlikely to threaten deeply held (often unconscious) values, expectations, or beliefs. Alternatively, where change is transformational and strategic then precious values, expectations or beliefs may stand in the way of cool-headed analysis. The challenge in these latter, more difficult, cases is then to know how values, expectations, and beliefs are opened for reconsideration and rebuilt to meet new needs. There is a neurological discipline to all of this. Rest assured, these new insights are not about making people do what they don’t want to do. (More to the point, people do what they want to do even when it is not wise or well adapted to circumstance.) Insightful processes of change management in this era simply recognize how human brains work (to a layman’s level of knowledge) in order to most effectively lead change.

It is a new era.  More than we or Descartes may have imagined change management today is an adventure in the realms of neurophysiology. Some new ideas and some new preparation are required.

1  Falk EB, et al.; Predicting persuasion-induced behavior change from the brain; The Journal of Neuroscience; 30(25):8421-8424; June 2010

2  Viskontas IV, et al.; Human medial temporal lobe neurons respond preferentially to personally relevant images; Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A; 106(50):21329-21334; Dec 2009

3  Vedantam S; The Hidden Brain; Spiegel & Grau, New York; 2010

4  Lehrer J; How We Decide; Mariner Books, New York; 2009

John is a board certified neurologist, now retired from clinical practice with 30+ years of experience specializing in stress-related illness. For stressed patients to succeed in their quest for health, they needed to make changes in themselves or in their surroundings. Therefore, optimal medical care often became centered on issues of adaptation – identifying which factors allowed people to change. John is an expert at understanding the brain and behavioral issues which underpin motivation, adaptation, and change.  John has gone on to work with a web development company creating change management software – behaviorally-insightful tools for the processes of change management – and now advises organizations in ways to leverage advancements in brain physiology in the areas of leadership and change management.

You can find John’s blog “LimbicZen” here, his profile on LinkedIn here and his change management software here.

Conner Partners’ approach to transformational change was built on clinical psychology and 37 years of field practice – and we continue to refine it.  If you would like to discuss strategy execution approaches we have implemented successfully for other Fortune 100 companies, it would be a pleasure to connect – you can reach me at

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