There isn’t another organism known to man that has the ability to do what humans are able. A great quote that embodies this is one I heard Brian Cox use recently: "we are a mere collection of atoms able to contemplate the existence of atoms". In that statement is the whole notion of intelligence and emotion which we are only able to ponder because of the incredible physiology of our brains. Intelligence/rational thought and emotion are two sides of the same coin - often at odds in times of personal change.
On Wednesday 24th January the Change Management Institute were very pleased to welcome back Hilary Scarlett - a leader in Neuroscience and the author of Neuroscience for Organisational Change. The session helped all of us understand some key aspects of the mechanism and physiology of the brain which are at the centre of experiencing and managing change. Whether you’re doing “dry January”, running a marathon or faced with contemplating your future in a disappearing role/industry there is an internal battle in your brain, looking to conserve energy and protect you from risk. But hey your grown up now, its time you took control if you no longer want at the mercy of change.
For any leader looking to drive change or for an individual trying to adapt to change, there are some fundamental things we can all do to give us the best chance of success.
Wired to save energy
The brain is 2% of our body mass but consumes up to 20% of our energy - particularly when threatened/ stressed. Consuming that sort of energy is not sustainable for survival so our brains have found ways to optimise that usage. In times of apparent threat the brain compels us to seek safety, to protect. It does this by drawing on relevant past experiences to predict outcomes and take quick, defensive, decisive action. This whole process can last a mere few seconds but its repercussions can last significantly longer as we "involuntarily" snap to a decision based on experience and threat.
When delivering change we must remember that whatever the message, people will have their own interpretations of that. Taking time to understand their reactions and not taking it personally will help build trust and understanding and ensure you can support individuals through it – trying to stop negativity is futile, dealing and coaching a better mind-set is a must.
Turning the table on threat to reward
Saving energy / avoiding risk is an evolutionary inheritance built from roaming the Savannah where real fight of flight scenarios dominated everyday life. In today's modern world such fight or flight risks are rarely life or death.... yet our brains still work in this way. The good news is it is a choice – we may think decision making in times of stress are "involuntary" but part of the brain, the rational/logical part, is trying use some of that precious energy to consider the situation and arrive at a more balanced response. Over recent years we would all recognise an increase in the use of mindfulness and the need to build personal resilience. It is no coincidence that as we have expanded our knowledge of how the brain works these areas have become more than philosophical notions. The real science of mindfulness and resilience is in managing the power consumption of your brain and overcoming the 'gut reaction' to allow time to see what is really in front of you. An active choice to react to stress in a way that turns a threat into an opportunity. A good friend of mine once wrote this down for me
Threat + Reaction = Outcome [Passive]
He then rewrote it as
Threat + Outcome = Reaction [Active]
Ignoring the absurdity of the maths, the point is to determine the reaction by considering the outcome you want from the threat. Instead of being passive in the situation be active. Take time to reflect and digest what has happened, allow the rational part of your brain to kick in and balance out the immediate compulsion to react to protect from experience. This is exactly what mindfulness allows and how resilience is built.
For those leading and implementing change – this is why reflection time and support to those going through change is so fundamental to its success.
Dr Kawashima is right! Train your brain
As adults we believe that learning becomes more difficult, that our brains don't like learning or worse are unable to after a certain age. The reality from neuroscience tells us quite the opposite. Failure to stimulate your brain adequately can in itself lead to accelerated challenges with cognition and as such we should challenge our brains continually to help us to stay mentally fit and healthy. We all remember the original "Brain Training" games from Nintendo.... with the advent of mobile apps everyone has, and quite often does, stimulate their brains with mindful play and we feel more alert for it.
The essence of learning is creating new neural pathways in your brain. That pathway is made of a series of neurons each with a small gap between them – a synapse. The first time you experience something new, propagating the signal across each synapse requires significant energy. However the more the path is travelled, the energy required reduces and the easier it becomes. This is where practice makes perfect derives and it is well documented that repetition of tasks through practice lowers the required energy, making the task almost automatic – helping your body over time conserve energy.
In times of change, people are told what is to come whilst living and breathing it are often the last stage. We need to create real experiences earlier on in change, experiences that mirror the end state of the change and then support people with coaching and training to move into the new ways of working. Pilot groups, storytelling and role play can be some really practical ways to introduce the real life impact of changes.
I am only scratching the surface of this topic so I highly recommend Hilary’s book. However what is clear is if we pay some attention to these observations, you tip the odds of delivering successful and sustainable change in your favour and more over really support your employees and colleagues in navigating what is a personal journey.