The Pull of the Pattern vs the Challenge of Change

How Neuroscience explains why change is hard (even when it is good)


I have frequently witnessed and supported individuals who wanted to generate change – from changing habits, to changing jobs and changing perspective. Everyone knew logically why the change was required, felt the frustration of being stuck in a pattern or situation and sincerely wanted something different for themselves and others. Few, however, successfully made a visible and sustainable shift.

Neuroscience gives us a scientific perspective on what makes change so challenging. It also helps us to understand how individuals, and therefore organisations, get on with the business of agile adaptation to a world that can be best described as volatile and uncertain.

The pull of the pattern

The first thing we need to understand is that one of the principles that guides your body is survival. Part of our survival strategy is energy conservation. Recently, scientists documented that your body is constantly trying to find the most energy efficient way of doing things – everything from your walking gait, to your thinking is governed by this principle. What this boils down to, is that your brain is “lazy”. It wants to automate and form habits as quickly and efficiently as possible. Practice a certain pattern of thought or behaviour, and it will become automated – whether it is good or bad/right or wrong.

The challenge of change

In the article “One simple idea that can transform Performance Management” (issue 2, 2013) David Rock and his team describe how brain science proved that when one is confronted with ideas that conflict with established patterns, anxiety and stress are experienced – especially in a “fixed” mindset. A fixed mindset is when we view ourselves and our talents or skills as stagnant. We thus go through life trying to “prove” ourselves, and change carries with it the threat of being “caught out” or “failing”. A growth mindset is when we view our talents or skills as a constant process towards mastery. We thus go through life trying to “improve” ourselves and change carries with it the possibility of “progress” and “learning”. We are more likely to view the necessary energy expenditure as positive and motivational, which helps overcome the discomfort that our biology creates in the process.


By creating organisational cultures, processes and systems that support and facilitate the development of a “growth mindset” we are already at a better starting point to embrace the challenge of change. This touches everything from recruitment processes, training strategies, to performance and talent management systems. Understanding the neuroscience behind visible and sustainable change is a powerful reminder that we all need to go to the “brain gym for corporate athletes” to ensure a prosperous future for individuals and organisations alike.