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Why your brain views change as a saber-tooth tiger

123RFsabretoothtiger

Copyright: 123rf.com

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. on February 10, 2016

Change management articles and white papers warn us about the havoc change wreaks on employee engagement. Employee fear, resentment, and resistance during major modifications to strategy, structure, culture, systems, and processes are among the biggest obstacles to successful change. In healthcare, where new mandates like electronic records are cause for concern, report by Cornerstone on Demand calls change the number one threat to employee engagement. Fortunately, the experts conclude that sound change management principles can improve engagement.

What surprises me is that hardly anyone seems to notice that employee engagement can have a positive effect on change. Engaged employees are better at change. Their sense of commitment to their organizations and their jobs, their trust in honest, authentic leaders, and their expectations that they will get the tools, training, and resources they need to do their altered jobs are powerful forces. That’s why it doesn’t make sense for an organization to defer engagement work until it is in the middle of a change.

Insight about how people react to change comes from the field of neuroscience, the study of the human brain. In Neuroscience: Helping Employees Through Change, consultant and author Hillary Scarlett takes us back to prehistoric times, when humans had more to worry about than a new strategy or a different payroll system:

Back then, the brain had one key driver: survival. To do this it worked on the simple principle of avoiding threats and seeking out rewards. Of the two, avoiding threats, such as the saber-toothed tiger, was far more important to survival and so our brains developed five times more neural networks to look for danger than they have for reward. As a result, our brains today are still subconsciously looking out for threats, five times a second.

No wonder it is hard to be engaged in the face of change, especially when the feeling of threat is contagious. Seeing our organizations in upheaval and our leaders and colleagues worried and fearful makes us worried and fearful, too. We become more emotional, less able to focus, and less perceptive. In such situations, humans revert to a natural tendency to minimize threat and maximize rewards.

Neuroscientists speak of that response in terms of two states: “Toward,” the reward state that people flock to, and “Away,” the threat state that they flee. In the “Toward” state, they are positive, focused, and willing to collaborate with others. They are innovative, creative, and more resilient. In the “Away” state, they are distracted and anxious, resulting in cortisol and stress, and a weakened immune system. They think less clearly, have reduced memory, and perform poorly.

The factors that activate the brain’s circuitry to proceed in one direction or the other are known as “domains” of human social experience. David Rock’s SCARF model identifies five:

  • Status is about one’s importance relative to others.
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

The parallels to the drivers of employee engagement are striking enough to support the conclusion that engaging first and changing later is has considerable merit. In an organization with high engagement:

  • Employees would already understand and buy into their organization’s mission, vision, and strategy, so they would “get” why change is necessary.
  • Leaders wouldn’t have to scramble to build employee trust or to demonstrate their support for an initiative because that would be everyday behavior.
  • Change readiness wouldn’t be an issue because organizations with high engagement keep their fingers on the pulse of employee attitudes. They already have established channels for employees to express their concerns and opinions.
  • It wouldn’t be necessary to build a change network, because engaged employees do that themselves. The actively engaged aren’t just engaged with the organization or its leaders. They’re engaged with each other, and they take responsibility for bringing along the fearful, the skeptics, and the malcontents.

Given that change is a persistent condition of organizational life, shouldn’t we make it a priority to build a workforce of engaged employees who are confident in their ability to change? To date, we have pursued that result through repeated change management efforts, one initiative at a time. Neuroscience, with its insights into how our brains react to threats and rewards, offers an alternate approach: making our organizations change-capable through employee engagement.

Whichever route we choose, the goal is the same: An environment where change is an everyday practice and communication is easy—no warnings, no fear, simply, “This is the challenge we’ll be taking on next.”


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Is Employee Engagement Dead?

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc., on January 22, 2016

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Mark Twain

Amid all the buzz about employee engagement programs, a growing contingent wants to throw them out. Rodd Wagner, in Forbes last year, predicted The End of Employee Engagement, calling it a “check the box exercise” at many firms. Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte, declares that engagement programs have failed us and it’s time for organizations to become “irresistible.” Both authors condemn annual engagement surveys. Wagner’s beef is that they aren’t confidential, executives and managers “game” them and employees are afraid to answer them honestly. Bersin says they lack “modern, actionable solutions.”

That’s a lot to expect of any survey, let alone one designed to be brief, so that employees will actually complete it. But what troubles me more is the feeling that we have been here before—ten years ago, when employee satisfaction was in the cross-hairs. The surveys were meaningless. “Satisfaction” and “happiness” were passé. Businesses needed employees who were committed, enthusiastic and passionate. The new goal was “engaged,” an elevated state of being that would propel organizations to unprecedented levels of performance.

Now engagement is under attack and a host of consultants and bloggers are rushing in to suggest alternatives, as if a different kind of survey or a new label for our “ideal” workforce will solve the problem. It won’t. Like the divorcee who blames her three ex-husbands, we fail to see that the problem is us—HR and the business leaders that allow HR to dither instead of acquiring vital skills. To quote Bersin again, HR still lacks people “who can translate a ‘finding’ into a program or solution that drives business change.”

That’s the point we are missing about engagement surveys: They are a source of findings and directional insights, not a comprehensive set of solutions. Gallup, the engagement pioneer, said early on that there were three keys to increasing engagement:

…measuring employee engagement, conducting impact planning based on the measurement results, and implementing changes based on the impact planning—then repeating the process to sustain or further increase engagement levels.

In other words, managers and employees were expected to work together to interpret survey results and develop plans to address deficiencies. They were meant to implement those plans and revisit them, until they got it right. Too often, we have skipped those steps. Why is that? At least part of the answer is that we haven’t developed the analytics skill set that Bersin describes as “business understanding, consulting skills, data visualization, data management, statistics, and executive presence.”

Case in point: A manufacturing client I met with last week blamed noncompetitive compensation for a turnover rate that has doubled in the past eighteen months. Knowing that turnover is never just about compensation, I shifted the conversation to the factors of engagement, but the VP of HR shut me down. A recent engagement survey showed that 90 percent of their employees were engaged and 85 percent intended to stay with the company for the next several years. Sensing my doubt, the VP sent me the survey report with a note that said, “See for yourself.”

On the surface, the results did look good. A page of summary statistics showed high engagement, year-to-year improvements and favorable comparisons to industry norms. However, in the charts that followed, by line of business, department and job group, other story lines emerged—if one knew what to look for. In addition, those “engaged” workers provided nearly 100 pages of write-in comments. They had a lot to say, and very little was about compensation. Their concerns involved management honesty and approachability, the “hostile” work environment, the lack of feedback and direction, a desire for job enrichment and flexible scheduling, and pleas for more staff, better equipment and improved technology.

It was true that the consultant’s report lacked specific insights or recommendations. However, it provided plenty of data. This organization just didn’t know what to do with it. Instead, they announced their lofty engagement rate with bold statements that their program was working, even though they—and their workforce—had to have known better.

All this to say, don’t blame engagement programs for the lack of improvement in worker attitudes around the globe. Clearly, annual surveys have their faults, but simply replacing them with real-time tools like pulse surveys won’t fix the problem, because it all boils down to data: Data that needs to be analyzed, interpreted and combined with other HR information such as onboarding and exit surveys, recruiting data, learning data and performance data—all of which needs to be integrated with customer, business and industry data, in order to uncover patterns, predict trends and solve business problems.

That’s a tall order, and so far, we haven’t had the heart for it, we haven’t had the skills for it, we haven’t made the time for it and we haven’t invested in it—either enough dollars or the right resources. In short, we have treated engagement like any other human resources program and that’s a mistake. It’s time to ante up, skill up and harness the potential of the biggest weapon we have in our strategic arsenal. Whether we label it satisfaction, engagement or irresistibility is beside the point, unless we call it what it is: a business priority.

 


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Taming the Change Management Monster

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. October 20, 2015

“Abominable! Can you believe that? Do I look abominable to you? Why can’t they call me the Adorable Snowman or…or the Agreeable Snowman, for crying out loud? I’m a nice guy.”

The Yeti in the movie, Monsters, Inc.

As Halloween approaches, my thoughts keep turning not to ghosts and goblins, but to the big, hairy monster we know as Change. Lately it seems that all of my new clients have one thing in common: They view change management as huge, complex, and scary. One is so terrified of it that he won’t speak the words, referring to our work as “user adoption.” Another knows that change management is critical, but she frets that her company doesn’t know “how to do change.”

Change is rarely a walk in the park, but stark terror of change still surprises me, for one simple reason: Change is a daily occurrence in our personal lives. Whether it is a new haircut, a move to a strange city, a different job, marriage, or the birth of a child, we deal with change, sometimes happily, sometimes not, knowing it is part of life. So why is change a catastrophe when we encounter it in our organizations and our jobs?

The truth is, it can’t be. Change is how we do business. The days of five-year strategic plans are ancient history, replaced by agility and the need to turn on a dime. Agile organizations survive and thrive through the mantra, “Without change, we die,” yet many others seem to believe that “Change will kill you.” How did we arrive at this disturbing dichotomy?

I’ve concluded, regretfully, that I’m partly to blame—I and the other change management practitioners who have perpetuated the myth that change is abominable. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the way we present change to CEOs and change sponsors. First, we make calamitous pronouncements like “seventy percent of large-scale transformative initiatives fail”—a spine-chilling statistic whose legitimacy can’t be proven. We pile on jargon like stakeholder assessment, leadership alignment, and mitigation plans when we should be speaking plain English and asking simple questions. And we trot out tools like a “change curve” that is based on the five stages of grief and littered with terms like “fear of the unknown” and “the valley of despair.”

We must sound—to our clients—like prophets of doom. “People hate change,” we tell project teams. “Be prepared for resistance at every turn, from sluggishness to out-and-out sabotage.” As experts in change, it’s our duty to coach them, yet we end up scaring them out of their wits. The same can be true of employee communications. A statement like, “Change means new ways of doing things” is fraught with risk, prerequisite for failure.

Clearly, we need to reconsider the way we think about change. Remember the Abominable Snowman, that supposedly scary monster? It turned out that beneath that frightening exterior, he was a real softy, profoundly misunderstood—just like change. Change is innocuous. It means “to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone.” That’s hardly scary, especially when change in our context offers benefits such as cost savings, improved efficiency, enhanced quality, or an enriched customer experience.

Is change hard work? Most certainly. Can change be abominable? I have to say yes, because ill-conceived, badly executed, and poorly managed change is a monstrous betrayal of everyone it touches. Consider, for example:

  •  Knee-jerk Change—based on hasty decisions made without due diligence or sufficient input from affected parties
  • Cinderella Change—expecting to succeed without seeking out and addressing the reasons for the failure of previous initiatives; requires a Fairy Godmother
  • Do As I Say Change—when leadership teams speak the right words but do not demonstrate their commitment through actions
  • Yo-Yo Change—unpredictable, exemplified by ever-changing priorities, plans, and promises
  • Tightrope Change—when employees are asked to “work without a net” of education and training to perform their altered jobs
  • Dishonest Change—featuring communication that is unclear or glosses over expected negatives like possible job loss

Pitfalls like these can make Change a big, hairy monster, but when you get to know the beast, it can be a real pussycat. Organizations that commit to make change a strategic capability gain a powerful vehicle for learning and growth, for progress and renewal.

 “Terrifying Change! Can you believe that? Do I seem terrifying to you? Why can’t they call me Invigorating Change or Stimulating Change, for crying out loud? I’m not a monster! I’m a good thing!”


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An “American” twist on “Show, don’t tell”

Every writer has heard the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It usually means conveying a feature of your character or setting by “evocative description” rather than “simple exposition.” Science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer uses these terms in an old but still relevant article, and offers several good examples. I thought I got it—until I watched an episode of The Americans last week.

If you don’t follow the show, the central characters are a pair of married KBG spies—Phillip and Elizabeth—living in a Washington, D.C suburb during the Cold War. They routinely commit acts of treachery and violence that I’ve considered gratuitous, designed to keep the show moving and to ensure that viewers don’t forget that these sympathetic characters are, after all, enemy agents. It’s a lot like Tony Soprano, whose entourage—kids in trouble, a mother with Alzheimer’s and terminal bitterness, a long-suffering wife, and a psychiatrist to help him cope with his anxiety—almost make us forget he’s a mob boss until one of his crew of psychopathic intimidators and assassins blows a man’s brains out or crushes a defiant shop owner against his car.

Last week’s episode of The Americans, called “Baggage,” included a scene that grabbed me by the throat and showed me how much may be lurking behind violence. An American diplomat’s wife, recruited by Phillip, is strangled while seducing a Pakistani intelligence agent. Phillip hears it all from the hotel room next door and rushes in to do damage control. The naked dead woman is laid out on the floor when Elizabeth rolls an enormous suitcase into the room. You’ve seen it before, you think. The scene will end there, because you know what’s coming. Body. Suitcase. The suggestion is enough.

But it isn’t—not for this show. While the horror-struck killer looks on, Phillip and Elizabeth force the woman’s body into the suitcase. They don’t pretend she is made of rubber; while we watch—and listen—they systematically break her arms and legs at every joint, accompanied by crunching and popping sounds. The characters do not speak; they grunt, wince, and grimace with the effort. They are grim, but not squeamish, as thorough and efficient as if they are packing a moving box with kitchen items or fitting the family luggage in an overfull car trunk. At one point, Elizabeth yields her place to the killer—and snaps a photo of him with the dead woman’s leg in both hands. The look on her face is chilling. It says, better than words, “What? I’m just doing my job.”

The sequence was both unbearable and riveting. I tried to look away, but I kept looking back because there was so much to see. Characters were developing right before my eyes, transforming in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The glances exchanged by Phillip and Elizabeth made it clear they would never again think of themselves—or each other—in the same way. The writing was brilliant and ruthless, a stunning example of “show, don’t tell.” Yes, it was TV, which by definition, shows, but there is much to be learned from it, even though we put words on the page, not images on screen.

The first thing I plan to do is watch that episode again, as many times as necessary to understand every nuance, so I can write it as if it was happening in a story or a book. And then I will scour my novel to discover where I’ve disadvantaged my characters and my story by masking a change—by being coy or squeamish, showing too little rather than too much.


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When human bias creeps in…

surveytableRecently I worked on a change readiness survey for a large employer replacing their payroll and human resource systems. Among the interesting results, one area caught my attention: Employees’ perceptions of their own, their departments’, and their organization’s adaptability to change. The table shows what they said.

It made me wonder: If so many employees consider themselves adaptable to change, how is it possible that their departments and the organization as a whole lag so far behind?

I’ve had some experience with cognitive biases, errors in thinking that influence how we make decisions. A long list of biases includes “illusory superiority,” often referred to as the “above-average effect,” “superiority bias,” and my favorite, the “Lake Wobegon effect,” named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Many studies document the human tendency to rate ourselves higher than others in academic, work, and social settings, on intelligence, job performance, and positive personal characteristics. However, most research lacks an objective standard to determine if, in fact, respondents are rating themselves accurately—that is, if they really are above average. To address that gap, one study used a population considered irrefutably negative:  prisoners convicted of robbery or violent crimes.

Researchers asked the prisoners to assess themselves against the average fellow inmate and the average free man on nine positive traits. The result: The prisoners rated themselves above average on eight of the nine traits—moral, trustworthy, honest, dependable, generous, compassionate, self-controlled, and kind—against both standards. On the ninth trait—law-abiding—they considered themselves only average.

Not surprisingly, the researchers declared these results conclusive evidence that the above-average effect is caused not by rational judgments but by people’s self-enhancement needs. Other studies have shown that the tendency to evaluate oneself more positively than other people is more apparent for important traits than for unimportant ones. So, consider my client, in the throes of major change. What trait could be more important to its employees than individual adaptability?

I can’t prove it, but I’m willing to bet that the above-average effect is at work in the results shown above, and in many surveys that ask employees to report on themselves and their abilities. In the case of a change initiative, taking employee responses at face value could be a huge mistake. It might cause leadership to become complacent; or the change team to back off project communication; or employees who overrate themselves to take training efforts less seriously than they should. It might cause the change effort to fail.

In short, organizations should err on the side of caution, knowing bias creeps in. To do anything else would be to succumb to another type of bias—the tendency to believe what you want to be true.

 


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Let the agent find you!

As 2015 begins, I’ve been musing about the business of writing, especially the tedious and inefficient process called “getting published.” In the past, I’ve compared finding an agent to searching for a job or a spouse, but if I learned one thing in 2014, it’s that authors face a far greater challenge. While job seekers and singles can take comfort in the knowledge that two interested parties are trying to find each other, the burden of securing an agent falls almost entirely on the author.

So why isn’t there a matching service that helps agents and authors find each other? On dating sites, members describe themselves and who they are seeking—aware that others are seeking them, too. Job boards allow candidates to “Find a job” and employers to “Find talent.” Even better, the latest job search apps (see New Year, New Job) target passive candidates with a tag line, “let the job find you.”

If only it worked that way with agents, but “Find an agent” websites don’t even have a dual path. It is up to the author to search agent information—which, too often, is broad, limited, and, I suspect, outdated almost as soon as it is posted. Because agents change agencies, preferred genres, and “dream books” according to market trends, authors often feel like we’re throwing darts and hoping one hits. It doesn’t help that every rejection letter reminds us, “This business is subjective. What doesn’t ring true with one agent may click with another, so keep trying.”

There is a better option: Make the process two-way by creating a clearinghouse for authors to submit a bio, query letter, synopsis, and sample pages in standard formats to a searchable database. Imagine how much more efficient that would be for all concerned. Authors would prepare one set of materials instead of tailoring them to each agency’s requirements. Agents could read what they want to. Query letter only? No problem. If they hate it, they can stop reading. If they like what they see, they can move on immediately to read sample pages or a synopsis, even the whole manuscript if they so choose. An approach like this might even encourage a dialogue between authors and interested agents!

How hard could it be to build a database, establish search parameters, and write a few algorithms to spit out potential matches between agents and authors? Monster, LinkedIn, and others have done it with resumes and work history. Match.com and eHarmony have done it with personal profiles and dating preferences. There might be a few kinks to work out–privacy, for one–but I think most authors would jump at the chance. Whoever out there wants to take this on, I’ve written an irresistible tag line for your marketing efforts: “Let the agent find you!”


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A lesson in gratitude

I didn’t set out to blog about Thanksgiving. In fact, I swore I wouldn’t. I’m a guest this year, so I’m not brining a turkey in a forty-gallon washtub or surfing the Internet for gluten-free stuffing and sugar-free pie. And the world has enough of the “what I’m thankful for” posts that crop up each year like stalks of ornamental corn. My position on gratitude is that it should be a daily practice, carried out in private. Count your blessings and thank who you wish. Just leave it at that.

Nevertheless, it is true that being grateful can become rushed and rote, like the “God bless Mommy and Daddy” prayers of my childhood. I repeated them each night, my eyelids heavy, not fully aware of what I was saying or why. Gratitude can be like that. Even in the face of poverty, illness, and suffering, it is easy to take our blessings for granted, but the source—whatever you call Him/Her/It— finds unexpected ways to make its presence known.

Mid-afternoon one day last week, I was browsing dinner recipes when I found a hearty soup that called for leeks. I headed for Publix and pulled into the lot—slowly, as I’ve seen too many parking lot fender benders not to be cautious. Usually, I leave the close spaces for the retirees who share this Hilton Head community, but that day I felt a little creaky from a new exercise class. I bypassed a few spaces and eased into one not far from the store’s entrance.

Eased is the critical word here. The landscaped islands that divide the lot into rows have low curbing that scrapes the underside of my front bumper if I’m not careful, so my foot was on the brake. I had nearly stopped when the car roared like a Ninja and leapt the curb. Suddenly airborne across a five-foot island, I saw myself crashing through parked cars and mowing down innocent shoppers. Scant seconds later, the car came to rest—gently—in the vacant handicapped space on the other side of the barrier, as if the car had overruled my choice of parking space and taken an unconventional route to get there.

I don’t know what caused my car to take off like a rocket; it may have been unintended acceleration, a mechanical defect that has caused terrible tragedies. Nor do I know what stopped my flight. What I do know is that, in a busy parking lot, I selected one of the few spaces with no vehicle parked opposite, navigated between a metal signpost and an ornamental tree, and struck nothing but a shopping cart. I am profoundly grateful that what might have been a horrible tragedy was no more than an embarrassing incident that means the next time I shop at Publix, I’ll wear Groucho glasses and a mustache.

Joking aside, I can’t stop wondering why it happened, and maybe that’s why it did. This year, I have a new definition of “what I’m thankful for” that transcends the things we ask for and do—or do not—get.  That’s why I’m sharing a special kind of gratitude: for the blessings I receive that I don’t know I need.