Keeping the Brain from Going into Temper-Tantrum Mode When It’s Time To Change the Family Business

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

“You need to change” must be one of the ugliest, most unwelcome sentences in any language. Neuroscientists David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz have a good explanation why. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET), along with brain wave analysis technology, they can actually see neural connections in the brain for the first time ever. Rock and Schwartz contend that when we tell another person or groups of people what to do, such as change, the human brain automatically pushes back like a two-year old child. One reason for this is homeostasis—all organisms naturally move toward equilibrium and away from change. According to Rock and Schwartz, “Brains are pattern-making organs with an innate desire to create novel connections.”

It seems that when people come up with their own solutions to problems their brains release neurotransmitters such as adrenalin. So not only do our brains scream “No!” like a typical two-year old when told what to do, but they also follow up with another familiar toddler line, “I do it by myself!”

Rock and Schwartz suggest that their research provides a scientific basis for leaders to ask questions and let people come up with their own solutions rather than telling them what to do. Asking good questions to modify behavior goes back thousands of years; Socrates candidly admitted, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”

One way to facilitate change on a large scale, according to Drs. Rock and Schwartz, is to have some kind of event that allows people to have the opportunity to think for themselves. They site the work of Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University’s Institute for Neuroscience and others who have found sudden bursts of gamma waves in the brain right before people have moments of insight. This means a new set of connections is being made, which makes it easier to overcome the brain’s resistance to change. The researchers claim the best thing leaders can do when dealing with the challenge of change is to help their followers focus on solutions instead of problems and to let the followers create their own solutions.

In a business, when we pay people to work for us, it seems to be fair game to tell them what to do and that they have to change when it is necessary for improving business or the bottom line. If employees refuse, everyone understands the ultimate dire consequences—an escorted trip out the front door. But when change needs to occur in a family enterprise, especially when family members are also owners, it is vital that the family members spend time together considering the situation, asking the right questions, and discovering the answers together. Heeding the warning of the neuroscientists, if we simply tell family members what to do, or that they need to change for any reason, their brains are likely to go into temper-tantrum mode, and that’s not good for the family or for the business.

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