Four Brain-Savvy Tips for Changing Attitudes

by | Aug 9, 2015

Whoo-hoo! I was promoted to mid-management (GS-13 in government lingo). I was going to Headquarters! I made it! …not so fast.

My first assignment was to write policy on the use of motorcycles in HOV lanes. If you think that doesn’t sound very exciting, you’re right. This was not the compelling policy discourse I imagined …and I said so. My objection (admittedly petulant and immature) was received with a polite version of: “Too bad. This is the job. Get to it.” That’s when my attitude-change process started. Little did I know that my brain and I would go through a change process similar to the grieving process postulated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. If my supervisor had been aware of the internal process he could have aided my progress and with less drama.

Do you have an employee who needs to make a mental shift but is struggling? On the other hand, is it you in a similar situation? Either way, change is tough– whether it is organizational change or an individual mental shift. Let’s look at a brief version of Kubler-Ross’s change process and how a leader can constructively enabler-move through the process more easily.

Denial and isolation. I couldn’t believe it. I moved away from my house and boyfriend (the house was the bigger deal) and into this lousy job. The denial was so strong that I didn’t work on the project at all for several weeks. My brain’s error detector (anterior cingulate cortex or ACC) was on high alert. It detected a serious discrepancy between my expectations and the actual experience. That was not good. The ACC consulted the amygdala to assess the threat level.

• Anger. The amygdala determined that my values (success and status) were in jeopardy and signaled a threat. That’s when I got angry. “It’s not fair!” my brain screamed as I fumed and stomped around the office.

• Bargaining. Then the rational (prefrontal cortex) brain kicked in. I reasoned that I could swap the motorcycle project for something more meaningful. I asked my boss. Nope. Motorcycles in HOV lanes was the job.

• Depression. My spirits sank. I had no control over the situation (loss of control triggered the threat response all over again). There was nothing to do but deal with motorcycles.

• Acceptance. The sooner I started, the sooner I could move on to something else. My brain reframed the problem so that it no longer created an error. I rationalized a different way of thinking about it that allowed me to move forward, complete the motorcycle policy and learn from the experience in spite of myself.

You may not be dealing with motorcycles in HOV lanes, but you may have staff who resist change and are stuck somewhere in this process. What can you do to help them move through the change in a more constructive and expeditious manner? It helps to know how to entice the brain to change.

1. See the “why.” Change is much easier when it connects with personal intrinsic motivators. “Because I said so” is not an intrinsic motivator. Neither is “because this is what the job requires.” Intrinsic motivators are the unique and deeply held principles or values that you find fulfilling. Maybe it is respect, stability, success, status or helping others. If you ask “why” enough it will tie back to an intrinsic motivator. For example, if I asked “why,” then eventually I would tie this task to the feeling of success from writing a policy to impact roadways across the country. That feels much better than “this is the job, now do it.” Help your employee change their attitude by talking about what they care about. Find out why this job appeals to them. Prompt them to consider how this new task or position links to their value system. When they find that link, the brain feels rewarded and motivated.

2. Provide certainty. Change creates uncertainty, and uncertainty tips the threat response in the brain. Help your employee feel more certainty during change. Explain how the change process will play out and what they can expect next. In my example, it would have helped to understand the role of rulemaking in federal government and what I needed to learn. (Learning new things may be an intrinsic motivator.) Once completed, I would have new skills to apply in future assignments after the motorcycle work was completed.

3. Share control. To the extent possible, share control over the change process. Find flexibility that can be turned over to your employee. Introduce project management tools (like the kind KWizCom provides) to visualize tasks and issues on the dashboard. Perhaps, they can figure out how to approach a new task or in what order to tackle a particular problem. For me, my boss could have described a variety of ways to approach the job – talk to others who had written regulations; interview associations interested in this regulation; or, read the background notes from the Congressional committee. The option to choose would provide a sense of control and the brain loves to be in control

4. Reward the new behavior. You want to sustain the changed behavior. To do so, you are helping your staff rewire their brain. Rewiring is possible but it takes sustained effort to embed new brain pathways. That happens with repetition and reward. Moreover, reward prompts repetition. Each reward (a good word, saying thank you, public acknowledgement) causes the brain to release a bit of dopamine –happy juice. And, the brain pays attention to the behavior that caused the happy dance. It will want to do that behavior again.

Change doesn’t have to be like grieving. Help staff move through the change process more quickly by avoiding threat triggers and activating reward triggers like shared control, showing certainty, connecting to intrinsic motivators and rewarding the new behavior. Change may not be pain-free but it will happen more easily. Learn and apply these four skills for positive, brain-savvy change.


Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

Recommended Reading

Leadership Insights Newsletter with Shelley Row

Get stories on leadership, decision-making, and personal & professional development.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Featured Blog Posts

Get a Free Copy of

The Handbook for Technical Leaders

Ten Top Skills for Managers