It’s an astonishing statistic, but roughly two out of three change initiatives fail to meet their stated targets.  This is significant since most companies must undertake moderate organizational changes at least once a year (and major changes every four or five years) due to disruption from technology, their industry and/or the competition.

As a senior leader, you’re likely either planning or implementing a change effort.  For organizational changes to work, you’re going to need a workforce that has the flexibility, resiliency and emotional intelligence to handle the pressure of change.  You’ll need to understand what happens to people’s brains during time of uncertainty and that all change is personal.

Leaders often fail in driving change initiatives because they fail to recognize that all change is personal.  Specifically leaders fall into three traps, because they:

  • Don’t understand what happens to people’s brains when they experience change and how that can lead to resistance, apathy and even sabotage.
  • Make plans that don’t include other people, even though their plans affect those people.
  • Lack sufficient ‘edge’ to get the job done; e.g. they don’t deal decisively with people who are barriers to change.

In this three part blog series, we’ll look at each of these challenges. 

Trap #1.  Failing to Understand What Happens to People’s Brains When
They Experience Change

Under pressure, our brains are designed to be inflexible, resistant and rigid, not agile, open and adaptive.   The brain is biologically designed to enhance our ability to survive.

The usual approach to change efforts don’t typically consider this neurological reality. Leaders bring in their ‘five point strategies’: communicate the strategy, put systems into operation, recognize successes, etc.

These ‘five point plans’ are what we call the ‘software’ of change. They’re effective at a tactical level to make change happen, like the ‘software’ programs of employees’ brains:  ‘First, you do this, then you do that…’

However, if an individual’s ‘operating system’ (the emotional part of their brain) isn’t working properly because they feel threatened by change (as most people do), the most detailed planning process will have little or no impact as their brain won’t allow them to be flexible and agile.  Using the computer analogy, new software will not work if the operating system is in jeopardy.  Great leaders must understand this fundamental brain science if they hope to successfully lead through change.  Our brain has two centers that are important when it comes to change: the amygdala (emotional system) and the prefrontal cortex (cognitive system). 

Working memory of the brain sits in the prefrontal cortex.  Working memory is the brain’s critical component allowing us to hold on to multiple ideas simultaneously and enabling us to engage in complex thinking.  The prefrontal cortex allows us to think strategically, connect to a larger purpose, anticipate outcomes and adapt to changing situations. 

The amygdala, the emotional part of our brain, alerts us to danger.  It’s hyper-vigilant about keeping us safe, viewing change and uncertainty as a direct threat.

When the amygdala perceives change as a threat, it moves to “fight or flight” mode and overtakes or ‘hijacks’ the pre-frontal cortex, flooding working memory and diminishing complex thinking.  We literally can’t think straight.  We move to binary thinking: black, white; good, evil; right, wrong.

In this ‘hijacked’ state of mind, change becomes the black, evil, wrong side of the binary equation and we have trouble seeing beyond protection and defense. We can’t see what’s possible and be agile in a change initiative. We can’t see how adapting to the change might be good for the company and ourselves.   This is when people move to behaviors like resisting, being defensive, complaining, and even sabotaging.

The amygdala looks for answers to personal questions like:

  • Will my social status change?
  • Will I have less influence?
  • Will I be as successful and competent? 

These questions trigger the amygdala causing people to avoid change rather than approach it.  The probability of success goes down.  It sends employees into a default, defensive behavior as a means of protection, because the change has become personal to them

When people start to trigger emotionally and become resistant and inflexible, leaders have an opportunity to make a difference in both the change initiative and in their employees’ lives - if they can tune in to what each individual is feeling and understand vs. judge.  Great leaders guide people through the personal aspects of the change, so they can be more agile and open.

Overcoming Trap #1

Start with Yourself!
When you come across behaviors that seem out of character for an individual, be mindful of your own reaction. Try not to take those default behaviors personally or become judgmental. Remember to think of it as an ‘operating system’ issue and not a behavioral problem.

In IHHP’s Science of Emotional Intelligence training, we start with each leader identifying their own triggers and behaviors during change.  Then they learn tools and skills to manage their own emotional response so they can model for their people.

Build a Bridge
Tuning into employees’ emotions starts by building a bridge to greater understanding of what they’re experiencing.  But this cannot be done in the usual way.

When we need to connect to another person, we typically begin to ‘build a bridge’ to them from our side.   We explain why the change is important from our perspective.  This makes sense and is the natural thing to do, but it’s not a great approach.   It deludes us into thinking that we’re connecting with our employees when we really aren’t. There’s a better way. 

Instead, we should start from their side of the bridge – from their perspective - and build the bridge backwards towards us. This one change in approach can make a tremendous difference in getting people to adopt change.

With this approach, we think about their needs. Usually, they need to:

  • Feel like they have a voice
  • Feel valued and to have their concerns and emotions acknowledged
  • Know they still have the opportunity to be successful and have influence.

When an individual senses their manager truly cares about them and they feel valued, their amygdala (emotional brain) feels safe, enabling them to engage their best executive functioning.  Now the employee is able to support the change, see the opportunities and solutions, rather than avoid, complain and resist – because you addressed the personal aspect of the change. 

In the next article in this series, we’ll explore Trap #2: not getting enough employee feedback to the change initiative. 


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