May 30, 2023
Nonprofit Technology & Fundraising Blog
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Written by nonprofit consultant and executive coach Mallory Erickson
Change is difficult. In fact, there is an entire subgenre of leadership literature specifically aimed at helping people learn to implement change. Do you often have great ideas that you fail to bring to fruition? The problem may just lie in the anatomy of your brain. In this article, we take a look at how brain anatomy affects the implementation of ideas and how to overcome resistance.
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Sessions held on June 6th and 7th, between 10:30 am – 4:30 pm ET
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Before getting into the brain’s role in decision-making, it is perhaps useful to conduct a brief refresher on high school biology. Your brain is composed of three major areas – the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brainstem. The cerebrum is the largest and includes a number of different lobes and areas, each of which takes the lead in specific functions.
Decision-making largely occurs in the frontal lobe. Particularly, this happens in the prefrontal cortex, located at the very front of your brain. This is the part responsible for executive functioning. It weighs the benefits of a decision and arrives upon a choice. However, while decision-making is largely confined to this area, carrying out decisions is a more distributed process.
While a number of brain sections are responsible for implementing decisions, there is one in particular that can cause problems. This brings us to the amygdala. The amygdala is highly focused on emotional processing. It focuses on seeking out pleasure and avoiding pain. From an evolutionary perspective, this was very effective. In the modern world, it has some limitations in that it can be highly driven by fear, preventing you from acting.
Your amygdala is part of your limbic system. When you experience fear, it sends signals to the hypothalamus (the master control for many of your hormones). This triggers the release of hormones that cause the classic “fight or flight” response. In short, if implementing a change causes fear or anxiety, your amygdala may freeze you from action.
Essentially, the part of your brain that makes a decision is different from the parts that implement it, creating some problems when it comes to following through. These problems are driven by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.
Fortunately, efforts of the amygdala to prevent implementing change can be overcome by building habits. This is largely the function of another component of the brain – the basil ganglia. This network of nerves controls voluntary movements and is also integral in habit formation.
This leads us to the research of Dr. BJ Fogg, founder of Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab. He ultimately found that behavior is influenced by three things: prompts, motivation, and ability. The right combination of these three things is necessary in order to succeed in generating an action.
For example, ability can be negatively impacted by things like a lack of time or not having the requisite skills to carry out a plan. Meanwhile, motivation can be hindered by fear of failure (i.e., triggering the amygdala). Fundraisers often experience problems with both ability and motivation.
While this may seem like a very touchy-feely solution, sometimes those touchy-feely aspects are valuable. This is certainly one. Our feelings and emotions contribute to thoughts, which help us form beliefs, which ultimately influence our energy level and action.
Recognizing and validating our feelings can help to stop a runaway cognitive behavioral loop that is leading us to act (or fail to act) based on feelings and emotions that simply are not true. Recognizing anxiety and fear is the first part of taking power away from the primal parts of our brain and moving action back to the more logical parts.
If you find yourself unable to implement change, stop and examine how you are feeling and what emotions you are currently experiencing. Speak or write them down to bring them more into the open.
Let’s talk about two different types of energy. Energy in this regard refers to its influence on you. There are two major types – anabolic energy and catabolic energy. Anabolic energy is constructive and focused on growth. It is motivating and helps us move forward.
On the other hand, catabolic energy is draining. It may give us an energetic boost to a stressful situation, but has long-term tolls on our mental, emotional, and physical state. We’ve all experienced catabolic energy from time to time, typically when we are frustrated or overwhelmed. Shifting our energy from catabolic to anabolic is an effective habit to practice.
While we cannot control things on a global or often even organizational scale, we can control things within our scope of action. This includes how we react. Our thoughts determine how we feel and – eventually – what we do. We want to break a negative cognitive behavioral loop by striving to carry out an action based on anabolic energy.
Are you a perfectionist? A surprising number of us are! While there are certainly some very positive outcomes that can come from perfectionism, there are a number of problematic ones as well. One is a tendency to resist change. The reality is that nothing kills innovation like perfectionism.
It is easy to be perfect with known quantities and familiar tasks. When it comes to innovation, perfection is not a reality. Bringing a mindset of perfectionism instead leads to a fear of failure, lack of adaptability, and lack of collaboration. If you remember our discussion of Dr. Fogg’s behavior modeling, you can see how these things can all decrease that motivation that is necessary to act.
If you are a perfectionist, you can address these tendencies by setting realistic goals, breaking large goals into smaller components, and tracking the progress of behaviors. Focus on viewing innovation as a time of learning from feedback. Celebrate what you learn from failing as well as succeeding. A growth mindset is key to overcoming this.
Time is perhaps the most valuable resource that we have. And when it is lacking, it is very hard to implement innovation. However, there are some easy hacks you can do to get into the habit of getting time on your side.
The most useful thing you can do is to engage in time blocking, which involves scheduling the most critical aspects of our goals first. This helps ensure we set aside time to address important things like implementing innovation. It is also important to schedule buffer time – extra time you allocate to a task or project in case you need a bit more.
Finally, engage in the Fearless 15! Use the first fifteen minutes of every day to focus on short two-to-five-minute tasks that scare you. This can help you intentionally overcome fear and build a strong habit towards action.
The final key to building behavior is to make a habit of connection and celebration. Our nervous system can down-regulate when we are connected and feel safe. Coming together with your team to discuss, identify, and prioritize actions is key to beginning this process.
Additionally, celebrating a behavior instead of solely celebrating an outcome is key for the formation of habits. Thus, work with your team to determine how to celebrate each time someone completes a challenging action. Utilize meetings or check-ins to help build in a reinforcement of these behaviors.
By practicing thoughtful connection and celebration, you can further increase the likelihood of effective habit formation.
Our brains are clearly complex organs that play a vital role in every aspect of our lives including the ability to implement innovative practice. Working on these five habits can help you overcome the amygdala and leverage Dr. Fogg’s behavior model in order to motivate yourself to action.