My mum was 50 years old when she learned how to fly. Not just fly. Soar.
It was her birthday, and she was terrified.
Despite her fears, she let herself be strapped into the tandem harness of a hang glider in front of her family and friends, and launched off from the Byron Bay cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, soaring into the morning sky.
Although for many, this may not seem like a remarkable tale of transformational change, for me, it is a sight etched permanently into my memory and psyche.
You see, for as long as I can remember, my mother suffered from severe agoraphobia - a type of anxiety disorder in which you avoid places or situations that could trigger a “panic attack” and make you feel trapped, embarrassed, or helpless. For my mother, although her brain was attempting to keep her “safe”, it had inadvertently created a psychological prison, keeping her under house arrest. Venturing into the world, let alone the sky, was unthinkable.
So, to witness my mum’s transformation over a short period of years, for me was an example of what is possible for the rest of us. Under the right conditions, we can break free of the psychological cages that imprison us, and we can all learn how to fly. Not just fly. Soar.
In leadership, transformational change can be viewed as a shift from the reactive to the creative - a shift from self-limiting assumptions and behaviours to those more congruent with self-actualisation and peak performance.
This change can occur for various reasons - both internal and external to the leader.
Firstly, change may occur at an organisational level, removing obstacles or constraints that are impacting performance. Or change may also occur at a personal level, where simply learning new skills or competencies can shift your effectiveness.
However, in many cases, the obstacles or challenges are internal to the leader - deep-rooted fears, assumptions and patterns of thinking and behaviour that have formed over a lifetime. Solutions that have evolved to protect the individual from harm. Patterns and schemas that, as I will explain below, are difficult to alter because they fight for survival.
It is these patterns that lie entrenched deep in our neural wiring, that often hold us back from profound change and self-actualisation.
The neuroscience of transformational change is the focus of this article.
Our brains and bodies evolved for survival, not happiness, with emotions themselves providing us with a primitive guidance system. Simply put, positive emotions indicate that we are getting things right and we should continue or approach the situation, whereas negative emotions indicate that the situation is harmful and should be avoided.
According to Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (RST), there are three main neural systems that govern and direct our behaviour: the behavioural activation system, the behavioural inhibition system, and the fight/flight/freeze system (Corr & Perkins, 2006; Corr, 2008; Gray & McNaughton, 2000).
The behavioural activation system (BAS) responds to rewards, and is associated with emotions such as happiness and hope that encourage approach behaviours. The BAS is subserved by the brain’s dopaminergic reward circuits such as the ventral tegmental area, the ventral striatum (including the nucleus accumbens), and their projections to the prefrontal cortex.
Apart from basic biological drives, the BAS is also influenced by other forms of intrinsic motivation, such as the desire to learn and to master our environments. Contrary to what we might believe, we are all hardwired to want to learn, grow and change. This idea was first popularised in 1959 by Robert White in his article “motivation reconsidered: the concept of competence” where he argued that competence itself should be considered a primary drive that “furthers the learning process of effective interaction with the world.” (White, 1959). No one teaches us how to crawl, grasp objects, or walk - we learn such things through self-directed exploration and play. And it is this same exploration and play that leads us to read books, watch television, and interact with others - all activities that bring joy, but also provide us with crucial knowledge about how the world works. As restated by Barbara Fredrickson (Fredrickson, 2004), positive emotions promote activities that “broaden and build” our capabilities.
Interestingly, and consistent with the “broaden and build” hypothesis, the majority of the brain’s endorphin receptors (aka the brain’s “happy chemicals”) can be found in the learning centres of the brain such as the hippocampus, where these neurons are maximally tuned to fire when we experience new information on the periphery of our knowledge (Biederman & Vessel, 2006). That is, the brain is hardwired to find pleasurable, and seek out, growth opportunities.
In contrast to the behavioural activation system that promotes approach behaviours, the fight/flight/freeze system (FFFS) is activated when we are in a state of perceived danger and induces a “get me out of here” state of fear.
Generally, when we are in a positive emotional state, information is sent from our senses to the thalamus (the relay centre of the brain), where it is passed on to other regions such as the prefrontal cortex, that play a crucial role in high-level cognitive tasks such as planning, and creativity.
However, part of the thalamus’ stimuli is also sent to the amygdala - the emotional centre of the brain, that can detect potential environmental threats through its interaction with the hippocampus (a main memory processing area). When such a threat is detected, the amygdala activates the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, and “hijacks” the brain, shutting down the activation of the prefrontal cortex (Goleman, 2012). Thinking becomes fast and reactive, rather than slow and creative. When we are getting attacked by a tiger is not the time to be daydreaming about your newest start-up venture - it’s time to focus on the immediate environment and act fast.
The behavioural inhibition system (BIS) can be viewed as the brain’s braking system, preventing us from approaching situations that might be harmful, or where there is confusion about the right course of action to take (in which case you should slow down to gather more information). In contrast to the FFFS that is activated when we are under immediate threat, the BIS tries to keep us safe by helping us avoid dangerous situations before they occur. For example, a healthy fear of heights, spiders or snakes is generally beneficial to survival, so we may avoid taking associated action that could put us in harm’s way. The BIS elicits worry, anxiety or rumination and includes brain regions such as the septo-hippocampal system, the amygdala, and the anterior cingulate cortex.
Unfortunately, we are stone-aged brains living in a jet-aged world, and our natural internal guidance system that helps guide our behaviour and success in many ways is ill-equipped to deal with modern-day living or the business world at large. Our internal compass is often misguided, capable of leading us in a direction away from true self-actualisation and peak performance. Understanding how this compass naturally works, and how it may be congruent or incongruent with the contexts we place ourselves in, provides us with useful insights into what might limit our performance and growth, and what we can do to better promote transformational change.
A commonly cited illustration of this incongruence is the amygdala hijack - the fact that under stress, our brains switch mode to scan for threats in the immediate environment, with our thinking becoming fast and reactive. Although this response is appropriate for dealing with predators, it is often maladaptive in a modern work context. When we get distressed, performance suffers. And suffers along most metrics of success. To reduce this impact, it is useful to design our workplace cultures for positivity where we can, as “happy” staff are more productive, creative, take less sick leave, generate more sales, make better leaders, and are more resilient (Achor, 2011). Simply put, it pays to be happy, and it is of major benefit to organisations to craft an appropriate workplace culture where stress is minimised.
Where our compasses are really broken however, and where things get more complex, is in the interaction between the behavioural activation and inhibition systems. These systems rely on the assumption that things that make us happy are good for us and should be approached, and things that invoke negative emotions are dangerous and should be avoided. Unfortunately, in today’s modern world the opposite is often the case.
For example, in our evolutionary history, having a sweet tooth was beneficial to our health, as it motivated us to consume fruits and vegetables. In contrast, in today’s society many foods that taste good are often anything but good for us.
Similarly, many activities that make us feel good, are lacking in psychological nutrition and detract us from living a full, rich, and valued life. For example, a university student might have an upcoming exam and be faced with the option of either playing a video game or studying. Simply approaching what will bring joy, and avoiding what will bring discomfort impedes long-term success. Procrastination is another example of where the BIS and BAS may work against you. In many contexts the compass is broken.
This idea that avoiding pain (experiential avoidance) can lead to long-term suffering lies at the heart of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) - a “third-wave” evidence-based behavioural approach to psychotherapy. From this perspective it is believed that such experiential avoidance may underlie many instances of psychopathology. For instance, social phobia is reinforced by the avoidance of social situations that might cause distress, suicide is the avoidance of psychological pain, and substance abuse is an attempt to numb painful emotions and memories and avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Similarly, if we look at the TLC profile, experiential avoidance can explain how many leaders have and can become trapped in reactive tendencies. For example, perfectionism is fuelled by a fear of the consequences of not meeting unrelenting standards (such as a perceived loss of social status), emotional distance is fuelled by a discomfort of closeness (stemming from prior experience), and pleasing is driven by a need to belong and to be accepted. In all these cases, there is a strong resistance to change, because it defies deeply ingrained beliefs of self-worth and external reward. The behavioural inhibition system has learned in the past that defying these assumptions doesn’t end well.
As discussed above, transformational change is often impeded by a brain that simply doesn’t want to.
Psychologist Robert Kegan and Harvard professor Lisa Laskow Lahey, describe this phenomenon as the mind’s “immunity to change” - a defence mechanism that impedes action (Kegan & Lahey, 2009). If change is difficult, it is often because there are “hidden commitments” that are discouraging you from taking steps forward - other competing goals that are often more important. In terms of the BIS, this is often a hidden commitment to keeping you safe.
Not only does the BIS attempt to keep you safe by helping you avoid uncomfortable or dangerous situations, the underlying mental schemas often fight for survival. For example, a leader who is high in the “distance” dimension may attempt to remedy this by attending a work function, only to find the situation aversive, further reinforcing the BIS to promote an avoidance response in future. Although the BIS is trying to keep you safe, it can often imprison you.
There is much airtime in leadership forums dedicated to “neuroplasticity” - the fact that “neurons that fire together, wire together” and how with enough repetition the brain can alter itself to help you develop new positive behavioural habits. Although this may be true, I will be quite honest in saying for deep transformational change, I don’t believe it is a useful concept. That is, the real question here is how do you create and implement behavioural change in the first place, and sustain these behaviours over the long term, so that they even have a slight change of becoming subconsciously ingrained. The difficulty is how do you even temporarily change your behaviour with a brain that is working against you.
Although the brain may not want to change and will fight to keep you safe, as my mother showed me, transformational change is very possible.
I believe there are 2 processes that are necessary.
The first of course, is a “discovery” of the direction you would like to head. What is your true north - what does a full, rich, and valued life look like to you? As we spend most of our waking hours at work - what is it you would love to do with this time? What impact would you like to have? Who are your stakeholders, and how would you like to best serve them? What is your legacy? It is knowing your values and valued direction that can help you better identify competencies and behaviours to change (such as from your TLC profile) that are most related to achieving what is most important to you.
For my mother, her “why change” was simple - me. I was about to study abroad, and her greatest fear was not being able to see me (this was years before zoom and fast internet connections). Her hang-gliding adventure was a macro step in beating her agoraphobia and fear of flying. And funnily enough, since then, she has seen more of the world than I have.
Knowing your “why” is essential in providing the motivation for what I believe is the second component of effective change - an external commitment to change.
This second tip is somewhat ironic for someone who has spent his life studying the mind. But it is simply this - to change your behaviour to take action towards your desired outcomes, don’t try to change your brain. Just don’t. There, I said it. The BIS, BAS and FFFS are all things that got you into trouble in the first place. It is a navigation system that evolved to function in an environment that no longer exists. We mostly have to live with that fact. The compass will always be broken to some extent.
In order to effectively change your behaviour, what I suggest instead, is to change your environment in a way that better supports your goals.
You see, your brain and your mind are not functioning in a vacuum. Cognition is embodied. Your behaviour is an emergent property of a larger system - it is very much a dance with and a reaction to your environment. To change your behaviour, think about what you can do to alter your environment so that it better supports the goals that you wish to accomplish.
The first question to unpack before examining your environment however, is what exactly are the behaviours you wish to change, and what exactly is currently holding you back? A useful starting point is to write down on a scale of 1-10 how well you are currently performing with respect to your current goal, and then to list all the things you are currently doing or not doing that are contributing to the score. From this list try to identify one or two things that you could do differently that would have the biggest impact. And given these behaviours, try to think what is the obstacle - what is exactly holding you back from doing these in the first place? What are some of the scenarios that you are finding yourself in, what is happening in the environment, and what are your BIS and BAS currently promoting and why (e.g., what are you scared of happening if you took your valued action, or what other “pleasurable” activities are you doing instead of what you SHOULD be doing)? For example, procrastination is a natural by-product of your navigation system, where it would rather do pleasurable things, than the arduous and unpleasant task you are trying to assign to it.
Given these insights and the behaviours you wish to target, think about how you can restructure your environment, so that these behaviours are promoted - so your BIS and BAS are imprisoned in their choice rather than them imprisoning you. How do you outsource your motivation to the world so that there is an impenetrable and sustainable fortress around your goals and vision? A great place to start is with “resonant relationships” - who can you enlist in your army to help support you, motivate you, and hold you accountable? For my mum, for example, her first step was to place an ad in the local paper - helping her form her own local support group of people with similar struggles (n.b. this was way before the existence of the internet or common treatment protocols for anxiety). Luckily today, there is so much support available for whatever goal you may have. For example, executive coaches are trained specifically to create a space and a process for desired transformational change, and even friends can make great “accountability partners.” Enlisting others in your change process is one way to alter your environment so that it is working with rather than against you.
Through exposure and experience, the brain may change, fears may subside, and assumptions may be challenged and rectified. But in some other cases they might not. What is most important, is that you live your life on your own terms, and not play hostage to your emotions.
In summary, our brains evolved for a world that no longer exists. We have a primitive navigation system that often leads us in the wrong direction. Approaching things that bring us joy, and avoiding things that are painful, can lead to long-term suffering.
A full, rich and valued life is not a life without pain. It often involves taking valued action despite how it makes you feel. A full life is a life full of mixed emotions. Make space for all of them in your backpack for the journey ahead.
In terms of transformational change, you firstly need to discover your own true north. A destination or direction, that upon reflection will seem worth the struggle.
Once you know where you want to head, there are many ways to get there. But in my opinion, having the right guide and travelling companions is one of the best ways to significantly boost your chances of success.
All the best for an exciting adventure ahead!
Achor, S. (2011). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. Random House.
Biederman, I., & Vessel, E. A. (2006). Perceptual pleasure and the brain: A novel theory explains why the brain craves information and seeks it through the senses. American Scientist, 94(3), 247-253.
Corr, P. (2008). The Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory of Personality. Cambridge University Press.
Corr, P., & Perkins, A. M. (2006). The role of theory in the psychophysiology of personality: from Ivan Pavlov to Jeffrey Gray. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 62, 367-376.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367-1378.
Goleman, D. (2012). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam.
Gray, J. A., & McNaughton, N. (2000). The Neuropsychology of Anxiety: An Enquiry into the Functions of the Septo-Hippocampal System. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organisation. Harvard Business Press.
White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: the concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297-333.
Dr Scott Bolland is an executive coach, international speaker, facilitator and futurist. His PhD and background (of 25 years) are in the area of Cognitive Science - the scientific study of how the mind works, spanning areas such as psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and artificial intelligence. His passion is playing in the intersection between these areas, in particular how to best prepare individuals, teams, schools and organisations to flourish in the digital age.