A Brain-Based Approach to Change Management

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Today’s world is changing so fast. As soon as you feel you’ve caught up, another crisis comes and knocks you for a loop. In this environment, there’s a heightened danger that we’ll fail to adapt fast enough. Inability or unwillingness to keep pace with change can leave us feeling stuck—incapable of moving forward.

School of Business Faculty Victoria Grady
Victoria Grady

If you can relate, Victoria Grady, an associate professor of management and program director of the Masters of Science in Management at Mason, has some consolation for you. Stuck-ness isn’t a sign that’s something wrong with you. It’s related to how our brains are wired. The even better news? If you understand the possibilities of the brain, you can climb out of the rut and help other people, even entire organizations, do the same.

Grady’s new book, Stuck: How to WIN at Work by Understanding LOSS, is the result of years of research and writing with her co-author Patrick McCreesh, an adjunct management professor at Mason. Stuck plumbs an area of psychology known as attachment theory, first developed in the mid-20th century by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst.

In brief, attachment theory concentrates on how very young children learn to regard themselves as independent individuals, apart from but still linked to primary caregivers. It’s a slow, symbolic weaning process involving so-called “transitional objects” kids use to anchor themselves psychologically as they discover more about the world. For some kids, the transitional object of choice is a favorite blanket; for others, it’s a teddy bear. As we get older, the objects change but the mechanism formed in childhood remains essentially intact.

“This is an instinctual process,” Grady says. “You cannot make this go away. The only ones who do not have this are an extremely small percentage of the population who often struggle throughout life.”

Big organizational change—e.g., shifting to remote/in-person hybrid working, or business model transformation—inevitably disturbs employees, customers, shareholders, etc. who are attached to the status quo. Yet attachment theory is not part of the usual change management toolkit. Grady suggests that could be one reason why most change management initiatives fail to achieve their desired outcome. Stuck is a call to action for the largely process-based field of change management—the best-laid plans for organizational transformation are often thwarted by human psychology.

Although each of us may be unique in our attachments and preferred transitional objects, the ways in which we latch onto these things can be generalized into a limited number of basic categories, known as attachment styles. These styles originate from early childhood, when they are encoded into the limbic, or intuitive, system within the brain.

For organizational purposes, Grady and McCreesh have identified four attachment styles: stable, autonomous, distracted, and insecure. They write, “There is no right type of attachment style and each provides different value in different situations.”

Grady and McCreesh define the four attachment styles as follows: A stable attachment style arises from having been given a “secure base” for attachments in early childhood—e.g., attentive parents or other caregivers—and is conducive to generally positive and productive relationships in life and work. Autonomous attachment styles are the product of a childhood where one has learned to be independent emotionally—these individuals often have admirable attention spans but can struggle to connect with others. Distracted attachment styles lean toward the opposite extreme: intense dependence on the support of others and strong relational orientation. Finally, insecure attachment styles veer toward social anxiety that can lead to either hypersensitivity and burnout, or (with the help of a smart manager) unswerving organizational loyalty.

Grady has co-developed a diagnostic tool called the Attachment Styles Index (ASI) that companies can use to better understand their workforce. One of Stuck’s chapters tells how the ASI was used by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as the agency successfully overhauled its Flight Standards Service division. FAA change managers discerned in the data some key mismatches between team leaders’ and followers’ attachment styles, which were hindering communication and fostering mistrust. For example, stable-attachment leaders can have trouble empathizing with followers who don’t share their style of attachment. Managers who know the attachment styles of their team members can create transitional objects that provide psychological shelter through the storm of change.

Sometimes, leaders themselves can fulfill that critical transitional object function. Leaders with distracted attachment styles seem especially good at sensing the struggles of others, regardless of the individual’s respective style.

“Organizations can do better for change efforts by more effectively aligning leaders and followers based on attachment styles to create a better sense of support through change,” the authors write.

Grady says that Stuck is also pertinent for companies looking to hold onto their talent amid the Great Resignation. The pandemic played havoc with people’s workplace attachments. Using herself as an example, Grady says “The commute for me was the biggest loss. I was so used to the hour it took me to get to the office—I would think, talk, record stuff—I loved that time…We are attached to our routines. So many of my friends have lunch voids; they didn’t know how to have lunch by themselves. The organization has to respond to the changing environment.”

Managers can neither turn back time nor slow down the pace at which the world is changing. But they can work harder to understand their employees’ varied attachments and help create psychological lifelines to get people un-stuck.