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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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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!”