Theresa Moulton, editor-in-chief of Change Management Review™, recently had the opportunity to interview Hilary Scarlett, author of Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-based Practical Guide to Managing Change to discuss how her specialization in the area of neuroscience has impacted her work as a change professional.


Can you tell me what brought you to the change management arena and, especially, into neuroscience as a specialty?

“After I graduated, I fell into the world of management consultancy and change management. I loved it. I worked on projects in north America, Europe and Asia and found the complexity of how you help people through change fascinating.  But I often felt a frustration that so many organizations leave it so late to think about the people aspects of change. We all know that unless people accept the changes and want to make them happen, nothing will change. This is what slows down change in organizations—not focusing enough on what people need during change.  And it still goes on, even 20 years later, it’s the same conversation.  I think part of the reluctance to deal with the people aspects of change is that employees’ responses to change are seen as unpredictable and that it’s just a matter of opinion as to what people need to get them through change. This is not the case. People’s brains react to change in a number of fairly predictable ways and it is through understanding these archetypal reactions that change can be rendered less frightening and more likely to be successfully brought about.

“Then, about six years ago, I came across an article written by a psychiatrist saying we are beginning to understand enough about the brain to be able to apply this knowledge in a useful way to organizations. That was the start of my wanting to find out more about neuroscience. At long last we can begin look at what goes on in people’s brains—what they need and the impact of change on their brains.

I found it both interesting and very useful in terms of working with clients, but also on a personal level. I think it resonates for all of us who have been through change. You recognize the uncertainty, the distraction and the impact on your ability to think straight. Neuroscience explains what goes on and why. It focuses on what we can do to help people regain their center even if there is lots of change in the organization. It explains not only what is going on, but also gives us practical insights about what you can do to help people.”

That’s an interesting path, for sure. Would you agree that neuroscience is on the verge of being able to tell us how to optimize timing and wording of specific engagement techniques or communication messaging so that there is less stress on people?

“I think we are getting to that point from understanding the basic principles of what the brain needs. For me, it’s about how to educate leaders, managers and anyone helping people through change about the brain.  If they can understand some of the basics about the threat response, about the impact of uncertainty on the brain, about the need for social connection, about the need for transparency and fairness, then it gives them a useful guide.

“A key moment for me was being asked to work with about 70 top leaders in one part of a bank, post the banking crisis. It was the “bad bank” and parts were going to be closed down or sold off. These 70 leaders had the task of keeping people focused and performing at their best for the next 18 months even though they all knew they would no longer be employees of the bank at the end of that time.

“I was brought in by Human Resources and Communications, who asked if I could help these leaders to keep people performing at their best. We needed to use a language that would resonate with bankers and so I talked about neuroscience and evidence and what the brain needs to stay sharp.  Because it was all about performance and productivity, they were interested. For me, that is one of the great things about neuroscience—it is about performance. The leaders loved it. As I mention in the book, one of the leaders turned to me, and said, ‘I love this stuff. It is not the usual psycho fluff I get from you people. This is science!’ That was a great moment for me; these bankers would not have listened if we had just been talking about ‘employee engagement’.

“So I am on a mission: I believe every organization will benefit from understanding a little more about the brain —every leader, every manager, every employee, every one of us. If we can understand a bit more about our brains, then we can help ourselves to have a more productive day, not to mention a happier and healthier life.”

When you were at the bank what techniques did the leaders and managers employ that allowed them to enhance performance and productivity that ultimately led people through that period of change?

“Most of the techniques they used stemmed from what neuroscience emphasizes. What really surprised the leaders was our need for social connection, our need to feel that somebody cares about us. It can be small things that make a difference. The banking industry can be quite tough. I think what struck the leaders was the point that all of us, subconsciously, have this need, ‘Is someone taking an interest in me?’ We are mammals. We would not make it through the first few days, months or years of life unless someone took an interest in us and took care of us. Neuroscientists such as Matthew Lieberman of UCLA question Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and say actually, physiologically, we would not get our basic needs met as infants without somebody taking care of us, so social needs are actually more fundamental than physiological needs. This need to know someone cares about us carries on, less overtly, throughout life.

“ Two leaders talked about how they made lots of subtle changes e.g. encouraging employees to talk more about what their thoughts were on particular projects and getting them to focus on what they had done well.  These small changes had an impact on employees’ brains and on their quality of thinking.

In your book, you mention a very specific example of how a person experiences uncertainty. Can you tell us a little more about that example?

During change, we often hesitate about sharing information with people, ‘Should we give information or should we wait until we are absolutely sure about what we are saying?’ Research indicates that if we do not have information, we feel uncertain. We speculate. We are distracted because our brains want to fill that information gap.

“I live in London. Most underground tube stations in London have indicator boards that tell you when your next train is coming. Mine does not. So, I stand on the platform thinking, ‘Have I got two or have I got ten minutes to wait? Will I be early for my meeting or will I be cutting it fine?’ Just having those indicator boards that tell you when your next train is coming means the brain can settle. Lacking certainty is hugely distracting to the brain and uses a tremendous amount of energy and effort.  Organizations, leaders and managers need to remember this.

It seems that neuroscience has given us access to information about our brains, which psychologists who studied behavior in the past did not have. I think it’s fascinating. How do other people view these findings?

“Having scientific evidence makes a big difference. For example, neuroscientists have shown the connection between social pain and physical pain; the same part of the brain that deals with physical pain also deals with social pain. Not only that, but social pain is real to the brain to the extent that Tylenol or Paracetamol reduces not just physical pain, but social pain as well. Facts about how real social pain is to the brain really strike people. Getting rejected by the team, by the leader—we shouldn’t be dismissive. It really makes a difference to us and our ability to think.

“There is some fantastic research by a psychologist named [Roy] Baumeister about the impact of social rejection on our IQ, our ability to think and make decisions. That research makes a lot of leaders and managers sit up and pay attention. If people are feeling excluded by you in some way or being made to feel they are not part of your group, what are you doing to their ability to think and to perform at work each day? So there is quite striking evidence and research coming out of neuroscience combined with psychology.”

Could combining psychology and neuroscience impact the way a change management professional might design a change implementation plan?

“Definitely. Having worked with change in organizations for many years, one of my observations is that leaders spend a lot of time looking at the data, looking at information, and have time to reach their own conclusions about why this is the right direction. But they then go into ‘broadcast mode’ telling employees why this is the right course of direction and not allowing employees time to reach their own insights. They then wonder why employees resist change.

“And I know a lot of organizations say, ‘Oh, we haven’t got time to do that. We’ve got to push this change through really fast.’ But to me, that’s a false economy. You can try and push change through quickly but then you wonder why employees resist doing it. They feel it is being imposed upon them. Giving people a little more time to reach their own insights is one of the big changes we need to make.  Choice is hugely important to the brain.

In terms of the actual mechanics of what is going on in your brain in these situations, in what way do you explain to people how neuroscience actually creates the importance and need for that connection?

“I just talk about some of the basics. One of the key points is that we are working in 21st century workplaces, but with brains designed to be out on the savannah. This is the challenge we have, really. We drop people into these places and then wonder why they struggle. Part of our brain has evolved compared with our ancestors—the prefrontal cortex where we do our thinking and planning and emotional control. That has evolved, but the rest of our brain has not changed that much. It is quite basic stuff that drives us—avoiding threats, seeking ‘rewards’: survival.

“And our brains are much more attuned to avoiding threats. If the saber tooth tiger got you, that was it, game over. So our brains are much more sensitive to threats, which is true in the workplace as well. And the threats might look quite different. The saber toothed tiger is now the uncertainty of a change program, a difficult boss, lots of deadlines and stress. Threats present themselves in different ways now, but the way the brain responds is much the same as it always was.

So could you say that Neuroscience provides the facts to back up what is happening to people as they are undergoing this change in their work environment?

“Somebody just said to me last week, ‘What I love about this, is it gives me the why of what is going on. And because I now understand the why, I am more likely to remember this stuff and act on it because I understand what is going on in people’s brains.’ It is not that people are being difficult or perverse or a bit wimpy about change, this is what our brains naturally do: they really don’t like change. It explains why the brain reacts as it does – going into flight or fight mode. Understanding the brain helps us to be more empathetic toward others and toward ourselves.”

Neuroscience isn’t just for middle managers or change managers; would you say it makes for good leadership at all levels?  

“Absolutely. If a leader cares about the performance of the company, they need their employees’ brains to be in the best possible place. Even if you are the most hard, ruthless chief executive, pay attention to the evidence. You can choose to ignore it, but this is what is going on in people’s brains. This is what their brains need for them to stay sharp and focused and creative.”

Your language is interesting—this is “what your brain needs.”

“It IS what your brain needs. This is how it functions. It is not designed to be in this 21st century workplace. It is designed for a different environment, so how do we help our brains when they are operating as if they are out on the savannah, not in the workplace? It helps us to understand what is going on for people. Neuroscience provides some practical things you can do to get people back on track.

“What I love about neuroscience is that you do not have to wait for massive culture change in the organization to put what you’ve learned into practice. Each leader can start tomorrow, act on these things and put these things into place.

Would you agree that self-care for change management professionals, as well as for other professions who are working with people in times of stress, fits well with the study of neuroscience?

“That is right. As facilitators of change people, what do we do to keep our mind and our body at its best? If you are carrying around lots of stress and worry about what is going on in the organization, how do you deal with that as a change agent, as a professional? How do you make sure you are looking after yourself? It is really important that you do that.

“What is the limit to how much you can push any human being and any human brain? With a lot of my clients, I talk about the inverted U of performance. We do need a bit of pressure, we need a bit of stress to get us to hit that deadline. But if you keep piling more and more pressure on people, it is not clever because, in the long term, the prefrontal cortex in our brains starts to shut down. We need to be aware of that for ourselves as well. There is lots of research about the importance of sleep, the importance of exercise, the importance of practicing mindfulness, all sorts of areas that can help the brain stay in good shape.”

I have noticed that the concept of mindfulness and change management was starting to come forward in the UK and  in Australia, but I have not seen it have much of an impact here in the United States. What are your observations?

“That it is interesting because, going back to that workshop I did with the bankers, probably about four or five years ago now, I did not really touch on mindfulness very much. I thought they might think, ‘Gosh, what is this hippie stuff she is bringing in?’ Whereas now, I talk very openly about it and many participants have tried yoga or mindfulness. It is interesting now that people are happy to talk about it much more openly. UK MPs [Members of Parliament], have been looking at mindfulness and the impact it has on organizations and individuals, children included. There is a great interest in the impact of mindfulness.”

What is currently the main objective of your practice and what would you most like to share with the readers at Change Management Review?

“At the moment, my practice involves getting into organizations and speaking to leaders and managers at in-house conferences about brain basics, how it works, what keeps us performing at our best. My belief is that knowing about your brain and how it works helps you work with the physiology of the brain rather than in spite of it. I’m also helping leaders and managers understand more about the brain, and particularly, how to keep yourself and your team performing at their best.

“And the absolute joy of it is, I speak at big conferences, I run workshops for leaders and every time, people just love it; it’s a great combination of being fascinating and very beneficial. You can just see them suddenly get it. Part of the joy of working in this area is that it resonates with our own experience and it gives us practical things to go and do.

“I see my main role as working with neuroscientists and how you turn their work into useful, practical information. Over the last year or so, I have been working with neuroscientists at University College London here in the UK.  I think they are pleased that their work is being taken out there and turned into things that are practical. In fact, one of the professors there said a lovely thing, “I am being paid for by the UK taxpayer to be here at UCL, so if you are taking my knowledge and making UK PLC function better, then that’s fine by me.’ I thought that was a really lovely way to look at it.


Hillary Scarlett, founder of Scarlett & Grey, is an international speaker, consultant, and author on organisational change, taking neuroscience out of the lab and into the workplace. Her work has spanned Europe, the US and Asia and concentrates on the development of people-focused change management programmes, coaching and employee engagement. Connect directly with Hillary on LinkedIn and Twitter.