Why Brains Need Coaches

The need to change is increasingly important in the rapidly changing world of work. The traditional view of organizational leaders is that getting people to change just requires information and the right motivation: we need to know what has to be changed, and then use incentives and good leadership to inspire people to behave differently. But it’s not that simple. In recent years, neuroscientists have begun confirming what many of us know all too well: that change is much harder than we think. Literally: change requires more than just thought; it requires ongoing attention and a significant effort of the will.

Why Change is Hard
Neuroscientists have found that at the level of individual neurons, brains are built to detect changes in the environment and send out strong signals to alert us to anything unusual. Error detection signals are generated by a part of the brain called the Orbital Cortex (located right over the eyeballs), which is very closely connected to the brain’s fear circuitry in a structure called the Amygdala. These two areas compete with and direct brain resources away from the pre-frontal region, which is known to promote and support higher intellectual functions. This pushes us to act more emotionally and more impulsively: our primitive instincts start to take over. When our error detection machinery goes into overdrive, we end up with a problem known as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In this case our brain sends a constant, incorrect message that something is wrong, so we keep trying to fix it.

Even in people without OCD, just trying to change a routine behavior sends out strong messages in our brain that something’s not right. These messages are designed to distract our attention, and they can readily overpower rational thoughts. That explains why change brings on so much fear and uncertainty. It takes a strong will and a great deal of focus to push past such mental activity.

While there are many interesting and useful findings across neuroscience, there are four main areas of scientific research that combine to form a central explanation of how coaching impacts the brain. These are the study of Attention, Reflection, Insight and Action. Coaching can help the brain because it encourages awareness and attention to what is going on in our brains, and can help us gain control of our thoughts and feelings and shift the focus away from problems towards solutions. Coaching encourages individuals to reflect, gain insights, discover their own solutions and develop the will and focus to take appropriate action. So it seems that our brains prefer the status quo, and this is why the process of change can be hard to achieve. But at least your Coach will be on your side, even if your brain isn’t!!


© Barbara Capstick

November 2011.