Leading Change Series: Soft or Hard-Wired Change

Soft or Hard-Wired Change.

Soft-wired change occurs when we make intellectual shifts about change. We ‘get it’ cerebrally and we comply with the need. It makes intuitive sense, and we go along with it because it is necessary, useful or required. Hard-wired change happens in two parts. The first level is where we ‘get it’ at a deeper emotional level, where it is now wholehearted, well-meant and authentic. At the higher second level, hard-wired change becomes part of our DNA. We do not even need to think about it; it is part of who we are – a whole body and mind experience that, in part, defines us. It is both a product of, and contributor to, lifelong learning. It helps to make sub- (or un-) conscious those things we do regularly, to free us up to think and learn new things or just to focus attentively on the present. However, it is also the reason change is not always easy. Trying to change a routine behaviour (one that is hard-wired) can send out messages in our brain that something is not right. These messages distract our attention, and they can readily overpower rational thoughts. It takes strength to push past this resistance, fear and uncertainty. Our ‘working memory’ does not have unlimited resources for learning, it can get fatigued and hold only a finite number of ideas ‘in mind’ simultaneously. So, changing a routine behaviour can set off alarm bells as the system tries to work out what is happening. For example, try driving on the other side of the road and you will suddenly need to pay far more attention to what you are doing. When you reach this stage, you have developed new neural circuits deep within the brain, which can automatically transmit information. However, the process is about forming these new circuits, much like skiing down a slope for the very first time: you go slowly, you follow somebody else, you follow a clear and not-too-steep path and you concentrate, all the while possibly feeling tense and uncertain. After much practice, however, skiing can feel as natural as walking. At work, people routinely do many things they know and are comfortable with; behaviour is hard-wired, part of their DNA – they are unconsciously competent. While soft-wired change can be an important focus as it can keep us out of trouble, it is in the hard-wired changes that coaching has its most profound impact. For change to be hard-wired – to become part of who we are, accessible and without conscious thought – takes time. While solutions to issues are sometimes readily accessible, there is no overnight cure for personal transformation. It requires persistence and willingness rather than relying on the hope of some magic osmosis. A wing and a prayer will not do it for most of us.