WHY CHANGE IS HARD – and how we can make it easier.

WHY CHANGE IS HARD – and how we can make it easier.

By Sonia McDonald LeadershipHQ 

Change is a constant factor in human history. What is distinctive now is the rate and scale of change. 

(Robinson 2001) 

Why do people find it so hard to change, or resist change even when it might be good for them?  

As leaders, we are constantly driving and facilitating change, yet research in this area has demonstrated that 70% of change initiatives fail! Why?  How can we make change easier and more successful?  

The neuroscience of change is an area I am passionate about and in this article I am going to share with you why understanding our brains is vital to managing and coping with change.  

Brains are wired for survival. 

Our brain functions as a survival tool by helping us avoid danger.  A part of the brain called the amygdala helps monitor our responses and tells us when to run from danger or towards safety.  It also tells us when to step towards a benefit or away from a threat. 

When change is happening around us in our society, relationships and workplaces, we can feel threatened and that activates our amygdala. We feel outside our comfort zones, triggering fear and anxiety.  

While this is good for our safety it does come at a cost.  When our brains are in safety mode, protecting us from a perceived threat, they cannot function well as problem solver or creativity generator.  In the workplace, the fear of change causes people to rely on tried and true routines, rather than create new strategies to move forward.  In effect, the brain shuts down the part that is really needed at that time. 

Basically the amygdala of your brain has been hijacked and this is not the best time to make an important decision.   

So whether you are a caveman running away from the threat of hungry dinosaurs or your boss has just informed you that there are going to be major changes to the department, your brains and bodies will continue to react with the same chemicals and hormones that we need to run away from physical danger.  Such is the effect of the threat of change at work. 

Now you see why 70% of change initiatives fail.   

By understanding how the brain works we can manage change resistance and develop strategies to maximise change potential. Additionally it gives us insights into how people learn, engage and remember as well as manage emotions. 

Brains are lazy. 

Considering that our brains weigh around 1.5 kilograms and absorb around 20% of our body’s energy, our brains are energy efficient and actually pretty lazy. Our brains prefer comfy habits as they require a lot less energy. They don’t really like to learn new habits or ways of doing things as this takes effort!  

The design of the brain is not always helpful.  The part of the brain which is responsible for thinking and high order processing (the pre-frontal cortex) requires a lot more energy to function than does the part of the brain which deals with emotion (limbic system).   That means it’s a lot harder for us to cope with change than to return to our tried and true habits. 

How can we break habits and form new ones? In his book “The Brain That Changes Itself” Dr. Norman Doidge tells us that the brain can be changed by our thoughts and actions.  They physically alter the structure of the brain itself, which in turn changes the way it functions.  This is the most important breakthrough in neuroscience in four centuries. 

This ability of our brain to change and make new connections, re-wire itself and even grow new brain cells as a result of experience is called “neuroplasticity”. Change is about forming new wiring, habits and behaviours. Yes, we can teach an old dog new tricks! 

How can we harness neuroplasticity of change? By tapping into the emotions…  

Brains are affected by emotion. 

We know that often our behaviour is controlled by emotion rather than common sense.  What that tells us is that the limbic system in the brain has some control over the information that is passed onto the cortex, which controls our decision making system. 

In other words, our thoughts and actions are coloured or skewed by the emotion that we are feeling.  You’ve heard of rose-coloured glasses, the phenomenon that makes certain things look better than they really are.  That’s an example of the limbic system influencing our beliefs and perceptions. 

When people are afraid, as they usually are at the thought of change, our limbic systems colour our perceptions with threat and fear.  People only see the negative side of change because that is all their brain permits.   If the change is brought about for positive reasons then people will accept it and be ready to involve themselves in making change happen.   

Making the brain work for you. 

So, we know that our brains are wired for survival, that they are lazy and will take the easiest thought out of there, and that every thought is coloured by emotion. We also know that actions and thoughts can change the physical structure of the brain. 

How can we use that knowledge to make the brain lead us towards supporting change rather than running away from it? 

There are two key solutions.   

First you can use neuroplasticity to your advantage and provide opportunities for people to develop new thoughts, and practice new actions and behaviours, thereby rewiring the brain.   

Second, you can make the limbic system work for you by creating positives around change especially to reinforce behaviour and thought changes. 

We need to build organisational change systems that capture the important role of emotions in determining behaviour, particularly in the contexts of engagement, resistance, cooperation, and commitment.  What that means in the workplace is that every small step forward needs to be acknowledged.   

Change leaders are essentially helping people to develop new connections within their brains.  Our role should involve creating opportunities and interventions which give people the chance to trial new behaviours in a safe environment.  We should allow them to take the ‘risk’ of doing something uncomfortably new and succeed at it. The more fun we can build into the experience, the more people will become involved in it. 

Positive reinforcement is essential to help embed the new thoughts and behaviours and to show the limbic system that this change is nothing to fear.  The more often we can encourage people to repeat the new actions, the more comfortable their brains will allow them to feel.  When people are comfortable, their high order thought processes resume functioning and their creativity and decision making skills start firing again.   

If you are leading change in your organisation you can create the right atmosphere for change by building a safe and positive environment for your team and identifying ways to acknowledge and reward new actions or behaviours. 

What is your organisation doing to support its people through change? 

Email me your thoughts and insights – or you would like to know more about creating these environments to sonia@leadershiphq.com.au 

7 Laws of Courageous Leadership

7 Laws of Courageous Leadership

Following on from my popular 7 Laws of Leadership blog, we’ve put together these 7 Laws of Courageous Leadership to help you become the brave leader you dream of being! After all, it’s the bravest who make the most change! 

Hold yourself (and others) accountable

When you hold yourself responsible, you’re demonstrating and modeling what you expect from your team as well. Be prepared to say something when a team member doesn’t perform to standard, because accountability is vital to success and improvement.

Practice Courageous Conversations

To avoid miscommunication and wasting time and effort, you need to be able to say what needs to be said – no matter how uncomfortable or awkward. This doesn’t mean being rude; it means being brave and cutting through to the heart of the matter. 

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. Mark Twain

Ask for detailed feedback

It’s hard to hear when we’re not doing something as well as we should be, but you’ll never really improve unless you get honest and unfiltered feedback from those you interact with, and then act on that feedback.

Be open with your communication

You’ll gain more trust and respect from your team if you’re communicating with them often, and not hiding information or using jargon to avoid telling them anything of real value. Be brave enough to admit when you don’t know something, too!

Don’t sugar-coat anything

Nothing and no one can change and improve without knowing how things truly are, so be factual and realistic when talking about how your business is doing.

Be prepared to lead the way for change

You have to be your own champion; believe in yourself and the change you want to bring about, and be sure to involve your team in the process so that they engage in a meaningful way. Even though things could (and probably will) go wrong, and you might have to go in a whole new direction, nothing will change unless you’re brave enough to try.

Follow your instincts

Doing what you believe is right, even in the face of overwhelming opposition or other negative circumstances is an example of true bravery. When you stick to your convictions, even if you’re not always right, you’ll still be respected by those around you. Over time you’ll find your instincts will sharpen, making it easier to trust them.

It’s time to truly be brave, and you can start by following these 7 Laws of Courageous Leadership. If you want to leave your mark, make a difference and inspire your team, take the first step on your journey to courageous leadership today – pick a law and get practising!

About the Author

Sonia McDonald believes we should lead with kindness, from the heart, doing rather than telling and is known for her mantra ‘Just lead’. She leads by example in all these areas and through her one on one practical coaching, leadership training for teams and organisations encourages others to do the same. Sonia has helped hundreds of people on their leadership journey to become the best version of themselves and in turn, inspire and bring out the best in others.

For more than 25 years, Sonia has been on the front lines of HR. She has held leadership positions worldwide and through experience, research and study come to realise what it takes to be a truly great leader.

Sonia has an ability to speak bravely and authentically about her own development as a leader, personal and career challenges in a way which resonates with her audience. She is recognised as a LinkedIn influencer and has become an in-demand keynote speaker, starts important conversations.

She is an award-winning published author and writes regularly for publications such as The Australian, HRD Magazine, Smart Healthy Women and Women’s Business Media. Sonia has become recognised for her commentary around the topic of leadership, developing work-life balance, championing the up and coming leaders of tomorrow and advocating for women in business and male-dominated industries.

⭐️ Keynote Topics for 2019

Sonia will give you peace of mind when booking a speaker. She is a proven world-class professional speaker with the skills to “rock an audience”.

Her energy, empathy, kindness, sensitivity and humour will enhance any event she appears.

1. Leadership Attitude

2. Just Rock It

3. Leadership for Small Business

4. Leading the Next Generations

5. Courageous Leadership

6. Future Leaders of Leadership

Sonia is accredited in Prism Brain Mapping, Strengths Finder, SEI Assessment and Zenger Folkman 360.

Phone 1300 719 665


Find out more about my Courageous Leadership Programs, Keynote and Coaching today by emailing me at sonia@soniamcdonald.com.au

The 7 Laws of Leadership

The 7 Laws of Leadership

I have put together these laws (when I say ‘laws’, I mean more like guidelines) for any leader who is looking for some direction – however, these are also great for making the most of life in general. I will expand on each one to explain why I believe they’re so important, and what they mean to me.

Without further ado, here are my 7 Laws of Leadership:

  1. Be brave. Be kind.

You’ll hear me speak (and write!) about this a lot, and with good reason; the best leaders are those who blaze trails and are willing to do the things nobody else will. You’ll surprise yourself with what you can accomplish when you take that leap! Always practice kindness and bravery.

  1. Follow your instincts, but don’t discount others’ opinions

If you can’t trust your gut feelings, why should anyone else trust in you and your actions? This doesn’t mean that you should ignore what everyone else thinks; it’s important to seriously consider all options and outcomes before making a decision, but great leaders become known for their instincts when they steer people and companies in the right direction and out of trouble. Trusting yourself can be hard, but it’s what you need to do to become a better leader.

  1. Be respectful, always

A leader who doesn’t treat others with respect will never be respected – and won’t be getting the best from their team. Relationships are built on respect, and you’ll need to forge relationships often in the workplace to be truly successful.

  1. Be empowering

When you give those around you the encouragement and tools to succeed, you’re instilling a sense of pride in their work and improving their self-esteem, while pushing them to get the best results possible. Making people feel good will make you feel good too, and will bring a great atmosphere to the workplace. You’ll also improve the culture of the business, which will have positive ripple effects throughout the whole company.

Contact the team at LeadershipHQ for a FREE Leadership or Business Culture Coaching Session 

  1. Be the model of what you expect from others

“Do as I say, not as I do” leaders are not respected, and will quickly sink a positive atmosphere in the workplace. If you want your team to be hard-working, honest, passionate – you need to model this for them and live it yourself. Enthusiasm is contagious; spread it to your team and see the great results.

  1. Be willing to do what is right, even when others don’t agree

Having integrity and doing what you believe is the right thing to do is an important characteristic of any great leader. No real change was ever made without someone taking that risk, standing up and saying “No more. This is what is right!” While others may not like it, you will more often than not gain their respect for sticking to your guns and doing the right thing, no matter how hard it is.

  1. Never stop learning

You’ll never know everything – that’s just a fact of life. But things are always changing; new research comes out, or new technology, and to continue staying on top of the competition, you need to be constantly learning and seeking out new information. Improving your skills and knowledge is never a bad thing

I go by these guidelines every day, and I hope they help inspire you to take the next step and ramp up your leadership. These laws also apply to life in general – who doesn’t want to be the best they can be, whether they’re a leader or not?

I’d love to hear what you think of my 7 Laws of Leadership! Let me know what you think of them, and if you think I should include any other laws. 





Top Tips for Managing Resilience

Top Tips for Managing Resilience

As technology and the world advance, workplaces find themselves up against an almost constant stream of challenges, whether in the form of workplace bullying, the restructuring of organisations, micro-managing, ridiculously large workloads and having no support from leaders or the rest of the team. Workplaces also liaise and work more with companies in other countries, which means different time zones have put an end to the ‘traditional’ working hours of 9-5 (or similar), leaving less downtime. Technological advancements can also be overwhelming, trying to keep up with the expertise and skills needed to take advantage of it. So what is the answer to dealing with these issues, and just how do they affect your company’s bottom line right, with managing resilience.

When your team is feeling overwhelmed, stressed or upset when facing the challenges of the modern workplace, you’ll see a decline in productivity and employee morale, and a sharp increase in staff turnover. You might think some people just handle stress better than others, but there are things you can do to help your staff improve their handling of these challenges – to help build their resilience.

Resilience is, essentially, the handling of stressors and problems without folding under the pressure. You’ll find some people do their best work when faced with being stressed, but you can still teach others in the workplace how to build up their resilience, to produce better results and better handle all that their work throws at them.

Here are some tips to help your team manage (and/or build) their resilience:

Improve social interactions at work

When employees have a reliable social network in a workplace that promotes open communication, you’ll see them thrive in no time. When they love coming to work, they’ll be more productive too. Being sympathetic as a leader, providing opportunities for teamwork and holding social events for the workplace will help boost your team’s relationships.

Promote a happy and healthy environment

Along with helping your team build beneficial relationships at work, there are many other ways you can improve your workplace’s psychological environment:

  • Be an approachable and open leader
  • Don’t regularly restructure or change the roles, procedures and expectations of the environment, in turn providing a feeling of job security
  • Watch that workloads don’t get excessive, and provide variety in tasks to keep your team interested
  • Have other leaders or managers trained to be more aware of the team’s wellbeing
  • Show that you trust your team by letting them have a degree of autonomy
  • Be flexible with how your team can work; offer differing hours or to work from home if needed
  • Be sure to recognise and reward great work
  • Invest in training your staff in new skills
  • Be fair

People who feel valued, trusted and supported by their leaders will be empowered to handle the challenges that come their way without crumbling, improving their resilience.

Take challenges as an opportunity for teaching

When you treat problems or failures as learning opportunities, you’ll be demonstrating resilience to your team, and showing them ways to look at challenges in a different light, helping them build their own resilience as well. Be sure to explain how not everything will work, but that’s okay as it’s still an important part of ultimately succeeding. Workplaces face challenges often, and modelling resilience for your team will be a great influence when a problem arises. Grab my books Leadership Attitude or Just Rock It! to get some more tips and tools in this area too.

Be grateful

At the end of each working day (or week), tell your team what you believe was a success that day (or week), and ask them what they believe went well too. Focusing on the positives is a great exercise to help your team realise that there’s always something to be grateful for, which is essential when building resilience.

These tips will help you empower your team and manage their resilience in the workplace, leading to less staff turnover, and an increase in morale and productivity. Take the time to work on your own resilience as well, so that you can effectively model it for your team. Don’t forget that your team looks to you as an example; how you handle workplace challenges directly influences your staff and provides them with ideas on how to react.

About LeadershipHQ

LeadershipHQ have helped 1000’s of small to medium sized organisations (sometimes corporates), teams and leaders. LeadershipHQ partner with businesses and leaders in building & delivering high impact.

Leadership, People, Cultural and Business Strategies and Programs that ultimately improve the bottom line. We work with leaders and organisations across the globe transforming their leadership, culture and organisations with our cutting edge and results-driven strategies, assessments and diagnostics, leadership events, coaching and programs. 

We know Great Leadership means Great Results. We have a team of brilliant people across the Globe who work with organisations and clients to deliver great results and leadership. We are the innovators and thought leaders in Leadership and Strategy through our consulting, events, internal and external programs and online resources. 

Our specialities include Cultural Transformation | Business Strategy | Leadership Development | Facilitation | HR Consulting | Executive Coaching | Keynote Speaking | Online Programs | Licensing Programs | Online Resources | Emerging Leaders | Women in Leadership | Leadership Coaching Program | Masterclasses – Half and Full Day Leadership Workshops | Events | Mentoring Programs

LeadershipHQ is the headquarters of Great Leadership. We have our online resource centre and programs, leadership magazine and we have been named in the TOP 50 & 100 Leadership Blogs across the Globe for CEO’s, Entrepreneurs and Executives. 

Our clients include Thiess, Super Retail Group, Coles, Kane Constructions, McConaghy Properties, ARTC, Aurizon, Qantas, Virgin, Origin, Downer, Genie, CQU, Griffith University, Lend Lease, Vic Racing and SEQ Water.

Phone 1300 719 665  www.leadershiphq.com.au www.soniamcdonald.com.au



Trust to Improve Performance

Trust to Improve Performance

What’s the secret to improving your teams’ motivation and performance? You’ve probably asked yourself this plenty of times when measures that you’ve put in place haven’t been as effective as you’d hoped. You have great incentives in place for your team, you’ve streamlined your processes and procedures to make things as efficient as possible, but you’re still not getting their best.

Gallup conducted a 142 country study on the State of the Global Workplace, and found the following shocking statistics:

  • 60% of Australian employees are “not engaged” – meaning they lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organisational goals or outcomes.
  • 16% are “actively disengaged”, indicating they are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to co-workers.
  • Only 24% are “engaged”.


So how do you get your employees engaged, motivated and working hard? Something that you have to earn – trust.

Without trust, your team won’t be working to the best of their ability. If they can’t trust in their leaders, why should they put in more than the minimum amount of effort?

Author and professor of economic sciences, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, Paul J. Zak, measured oxytocin levels and brain activity as people worked, over eight years. Oxytocin is the hormone that affects parts of our interaction and behaviours including trust. His research showed that trust within an organisation is absolutely vital to performance, and also that there are eight ways to quantify and boost trust within a workplace. Luckily for us, Zak made these into an acronym – OXYTOCIN – so it’s easy to remember.

Let’s take a look at what OXYTOCIN stands for 


Positive reinforcement (like rewards and recognition) has been shown to trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is linked to motivation and effort, so it’s important to recognise and reward your team for great performance because then they’ll want to continue working to that high standard. Nobody likes working hard without that effort being acknowledged.


Expectations need to be set and made clear, so employees know what they’re working towards. Make sure that your team knows they’re part of the big picture, and explain just how they are. When you get your team involved in the mission, knowing that they are directly influencing the success of that mission and your organisation boosts their motivation and commitment to meeting and excelling at their goals and your expectations.


Micromanaging gets you nowhere; as a leader you must be able to effectively make decisions and delegate tasks. Foster a safe environment of learning – mistakes aren’t the end of the world, just make sure to learn from them – and your team members will thrive when given more responsibility, and work more autonomously knowing they won’t be punished for mistakes. They will feel motivated and empowered from being trusted to do important tasks.


Transfer refers to enabling your team to ‘job-craft’ – make their job their own, and make their own decisions about how they define success.

Research undertaken by the University of Michigan showed that allowing employees to job-craft resulted in higher levels of job fulfilment and engagement. This means less staff turnover as well.


Being transparent and open with information relating to your organisation builds trust with your team because it shows that you’re being honest with them. You’d be surprised how much time and effort is taken up when your team is wondering what’s going on, so be sure to practice openness when communicating with your team.

Team members appreciate being told what’s going on, even if it’s not always good news since it gives them a chance to voice their opinions and give their input. When employees feel heard, they also feel valued and so want to return the favour and work harder.

We have launched our NEW Performance Team Coaching Program – find out more HERE! 


During his research, Zak saw a variety of studies that showed how important relationships (including friendships) are on retention, productivity, health and overall job satisfaction. Encourage relationship building amongst your team by providing plenty of team-building opportunities such as collaboration between departments, and making sure to reward great teamwork.

If your organisation isn’t getting across how important workplace relationships can be, then your team won’t be trying too hard to build their networks.


Invest in your team; provide them with training and opportunities for reward and advancement, and you’ll see a big improvement in their engagement. Your team will also trust you more, as they see how much you value them by choosing to invest in them. Feeling valued like this is a great motivator for employees to do their best.


The best leaders aren’t afraid to be vulnerable; being authentic and natural shows your employees that you’re human too and that they don’t have to be perfect because you aren’t either. When your team can relate to you, they’re inspired to be more open and honest as well. This allows them to ask for help sooner, instead of fearing being reprimanded, which means time isn’t wasted and work can be carried out more competently and efficiently.

Trust isn’t exactly something you can measure, but it’s a huge part of getting your team to consistently perform at their best. What Zak found from his research is that when you have people working for organisations that have an emphasis on trust, they are 76% more engaged, 50% more productive, and 50% more likely to stay in that organisation. You can’t argue with those results!

If you’re a leader who wants to step up your game and start encouraging a culture of trust in your workplace using resources backed by extensive research and with proven results, check out our Leadership Attitude Academy here, or book a coaching session here. 


7 Key Trends – Neuroscience of Leadership

7 Key Trends – Neuroscience of Leadership

2018 will be a year of change so it promises to be very exciting. While there are many possibilities ahead, here are seven of the key trends I see impacting our workplaces this year.

  1. Increasing importance of social development at work:

Our social group was for company as well as for self-protection. We were born to be connected, and we thrive on it. We see the effect in our brains where areas such as the amygdala are larger in people who have big social networks. That means they experience more connectedness and social awareness.

As we’ve come to realise how important this is, we’ve seen a shift in the way organisations are structured. This trend will continue and we will see a shift from competitive workers towards collaborative teams. More importantly, we will see more attention being paid to defining the role of the individual and the team, and how the work you do is important in the organisation. We’ll draw on the positive elements of social behaviour to make the workplace more cohesive, creative and supportive.

  1. The rise of collective leadership

The Center for Creative Leadership has pointed out that our perception of leadership is changing. Today we don’t want to look to one “heroic leader”; we prefer to work as part of a collective leadership. That’s logical, given our human preference for working in groups.

We will see teams accepting (and expecting) more responsibility and control over their work. They will be more innovative and ready to embrace new ideas and contend with change. Each member will form part of the leadership group when their particular skills or knowledge are in demand.

It’s a shift from manager-as-leader style thinking to a manager-within-the-team approach, which will need to be incorporated into leadership training programs.

  1. Becoming aware of bias

Whether we like it or not, we all have some form of bias. The trend for 2018 will be to raise the topic and help individuals become aware of their biases and the effect they have on performance. When we realise our biases we can begin to deal with them, and control their impact on our behaviour and assumptions. Leadership training will focus on giving individuals the skills to recognise and manage conscious or unconscious bias, its effect on team communication and its restriction of innovation and engagement.

  1. Gender and leadership

Organisations have finally recognised that when they have women in management and leadership roles, they have better financial performance. There’s a dollar value return on their investment, making it worthwhile for them to investigate further. In 2017 there was a lot of attention given to understanding the role of women in leadership, and acknowledging their special brand of skill and perception.

2018 will see the trend continue. Organisations will begin building systems to encourage the emergence of female leaders, including systems and training to help women recognise their own leadership merit.

  1. Building a workplace culture for innovation

Innovation is what gives an organisation its competitive edge. 2018 will see organisations making changes to the way they look, work and behave, all in the name of encouraging innovation.

Angus Kidman on Lifehacker says that “35% of people have any kind of creative moment in the morning. The minute you get to work it plummets to 8 per cent, and it never comes up very much. Letting people work from home more, you get the equivalent of an extra day a week.”

We’ve looked on as places like Facebook and Google have built offices and developed workplace policies that look very different to our own. We will see traditional workplaces finally understanding the value of this approach.

While you might not find a slide in the office any time soon, you will see organisations loosening up about working hours, working from home and even the layout of the floorplan.

  1. Engagement in training

Figures show that employee engagement is low across the board, including with organisations training and development. This year we will see more use of technology and games as a learning and development tool. Gamification will be on the rise with recent reports quoting figures like these:

  • Over 70 percent of employees felt engagement software would help them perform better at work.
  • Over 25 percent said it would help them stay motivated.
  • 54 percent of respondents indicated that they would be more likely or much more likely to perform a task if it had game elements.

By using technology and adding game elements to training or even within the job itself, it encourages the release of dopamine, the happy chemical of the brain. When we feel happy, we work better and we’re prepared to take a few risks and try new things.

  1. Leadership development through study of neuroscience

This year we will see an increasing number of formal courses of study on leadership neuroscience becoming available. There will be more conferences to build our understanding of how our brains work and how they affect our leadership style and abilities. It is the basis of all our programs and workshops at LeadershipHQ.

So there you have it. Do you agree with me or have you spotted other neuroscience and leadership trends that we should talk about? Please share your opinion in the comments below. I’d love to know your thoughts. Check out our amazing Online Leadership Toolkit and Academy with a Module on the Neuroscience of Leadership at https://laa.leadershiphq.com.au/