Thursday, May 23, 2013

Managing Resistance to Change

Why is it that most organizations struggle to make real change? Whether it is consolidating a merger, re-engineering business processes, restructuring, changing value propositions, introducing new IT systems, relocating premises, or any other type of change, all too often the process is derailed by the resistance of employees.

Resistance to change is one of the most powerful drivers of human behavior, and the key to dealing with it effectively is to understand both its physical and emotional components.


Have you ever had the experience of hearing a song that instantly brought back memories taking you to another time and place? This happens because the song triggers memories in your brain, memories that were created through neural-pathways established in the past.

Neural-pathways are formed in your brain to enable you to quickly recognize a situation and automatically react to it, almost without thinking. These pathways form in much the same way as you might wear a path through a grassy field. The first time you walk through you don't leave much of a trail, but each subsequent pass makes the trail more noticeable and easier to navigate. The same thing happens when your brain forms a neural-pathway.

When Your Neural-Pathways Fire Into Action

Your neural-pathways fire into action when you encounter a situation that triggers a memory of a familiar pattern. Because the circumstances appear to fit that remembered pattern, your brain reacts almost instantly without having to think about it.

Here's an example of how this might occur in the workplace. Your phone rings and the caller ID shows up a number you know all too well. You think to yourself, ‘Oh, no, what does HE want?' or ‘Oh God, she only phones me if it's trouble".

Another example is when the boss asks if you've "just got ten minutes" to talk about something. In a flash your hands go clammy and your stomach turns over because you're positive that nothing good will come from the next ten minutes.

What causes the reactions in each of these cases? The answer is in the limbic system in your brain. It shifts into high gear and starts working overtime when a memory is triggered. You can't help it, you immediately recall all the bad times that occurred when that caller rang in or the boss wanted to see you. Your reactions are based on both emotional and physical realities. How does it do this?

The Amygdala

The amygdala is an almond-shaped area of the brain that triggers the "fight or flight" reaction. Your brain has two amygdalae, and they play a fundamental role in ensuring your survival. Sometimes, though, the amygdalae set off a false alarm. This is what I call The Almond Effect®.

Put simply, you fire up into action without thinking and get it wrong. You can probably think of many times when this has happened, times when you said or did something in the heat of the moment, and almost immediately afterwards regretted it

The Almond Effect® and Resistance to Change

The Almond Effect® is critical if survival really is at stake, but at work it often gets in the way. It is the reason why all too often, human beings automatically react to change with resistance, even before they fully understand the nature of the change.

The amygdala has activated the fear response based on previous memories of change associated with, for example, job losses, more work, new skills required, change of roster, cost cutting and so on. Stress hormones are released as part of the inbuilt flight/fight mechanism and show up at work as anger, anxiety, lethargy, poor performance and reluctance to change.

The only way to overcome this resistance is to convince employees that the changes or new initiatives enhance their ability to ‘survive'. If you don't convince them, they may comply with changes for a while but will soon fall back into the old way of doing things. Their older, established neural-pathway patterns are simply more hard wired than the new ones. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Are you totally predictable? Your employees think you are

The power of patterns

The Almond Effect® is when our amygdala recognises a pattern in its most rudimentary form, instantly assesses that it might pose a threat to our ‘survival' and causes us to react inappropriately to the ‘danger'.

Of course, everyday our brain relies on stressless non-thinking patterns that don't trigger The Almond Effect so we can get on with our lives. That's why we are ‘creatures of habit'. We get into ways of behaving, patterns, because then we don't have to think about it, we just ‘do'. It's less stressful and takes up less brain energy.

Change, even good change, is demanding

Yet anyone who has ever tried to change their diet or give up cigarettes, move to a new city, take on a new work role, learn a new language, work with different software, study a new subject, improve a long used swimming style (or your golf swing!) and a myriad of other examples - you know how demanding and tiring making those changes can be. Your brain finds it draining.

Even good changes, eg getting a great new boss or work colleague can be difficult because your brain has laid down patterns of behaviour attached to working with the previous person. And that's why it's hard to get people to change at work and indeed, at home.

We prefer the status quo

Unless we are highly motivated and determinedly ‘think' our way to persist and be resilient during the challenges of laying down new patterns, our brain will always prefer to rely on existing patterns rather than have to learn and lay down new ones.

That's why if we don't maintain the determination to keep trying, we (and our people) just slip back into the old ways. It's simply easier - and, automatic!

Patterns are our default

For example, we lay down multiple new brain patterns when we are learning to drive, but once we have mastered the skills, it's easy and becomes almost a ‘non active thinking' skill. How many times have you driven somewhere and didn't even notice the journey as your mind was pre-occupied with something else.

Scary at times! But if you were driving in another country where they drive on the other side of the road, I suspect you'd be concentrating on every metre - until your brain had ‘got' the new pattern!

The same thing happens at work - we get into ways of working and behaviours that make work life easier for us and then rarely think about them - especially if the patterns deliver results.

Shrieking Sharapova

One of many great sporting examples of this is Maria Sharapova. She, like many other tennis players and other sportspeople, have a pattern that they repeat before every shot. And I mean every one.

Between each shot, she walks to the back of the court. Then, if serving she selects the tennis ball she is going to use to serve and approaches the base line. She takes a breath, looks at the part of the court she is serving to, slowly bounces the ball on the court twice, and then serves.

Every time! It is fascinating. Clearly she uses this pattern to get focussed, get her nerves and adrenaline under control and make winning shots. Though even when she is losing, she never breaks the routine.

Isn't that interesting? This is a conscious use of a brain pattern that she knows usually works, even when it isn't actually delivering the results, to make sure that she doesn't lose her cool, fall prey to The Almond Effect® and do something rash, impulsive, without thinking and contrary to her years of training.

Manager's patterns aren't always helpful

The challenge with patterns is that because they happen without thinking, sometimes we don't realise the impact of our behaviours (patterns) on others.

For example, the manager who never looks up when someone comes into their office - what message does that pattern send to the staff member? The CEO who never makes any announcements that have any good news - what signal does that pattern send to staff? What do you think is their state of mind, their expectation, whenever the CEO indicates their intention to make an announcement or visit?

Other examples:

Managers who don't work with their team to formulate new organisational strategies because "what's the point, the CEO will do it his way anyway." And he does. Why would you be surprised when these managers complain that the CEO is an autocrat and he complains that they don't co-operate. Both parties are set in their own patterns of behaviour, both reinforcing each other's.

What about trying to improve safety by changing uniforms in a manufacturing environment? What if the employees are used to uniforms with long sleeves and you want them to wear short sleeves. Or vice versa? Seems on the face of it like a small thing. Yet because of the change required in mental patterns (try listing them from the employees' point of view), such a request can present real challenges for managers implementing change.

We have unhelpful patterns we're not even conscious of

And outside work. Have you ever said something like: I don't like sour cream on potatoes - but in fact have never tasted it? Or "I've always vote Liberal" or "Labor" as the case may be - why? Because your parents always did.

Where do those choices/patterns come from and what makes us stop, or not stop, and review them? You know you have a pattern that you've never reviewed when you say or think to yourself: "I've never really thought about it". Or someone says to you: you are so predictable and you're staggered that you are!

So how predictable are you?

In fact, have you ever thought or said to someone else: "you're so predictable". How often has anyone ever said that to you? Do you just ‘know' how someone is going to react to a certain situation, what they are going to say? Would they say the same about you?

It's hard work to lay down new patterns especially if the old ones seem to have worked well enough so far. The first step to overcoming the negative and stressful impacts of The Almond Effect is to stop and reflect on what's going on for you at that moment. It's about developing self-awareness. It's about looking at what automatic behaviours you engage in, or what automatic assumptions you make, without thinking, just on reflex.

Try this

Ask a trusted work colleague if they can predict how you would react (behave) if:

- a new IT system was introduced
- a new manager was hired from outside over internal competition
- your boss got a new expensive car
- you were asked to stay - back late for the third night in a row.

And what about at home: what's predictable? About you? About someone you share your home with?
Not that there is anything wrong with predictability. As I mentioned earlier, patterns help us live our lives less stressfully.

Good leaders try to discover and reflect on their patterns

In order to change and to build leadership skills, we must develop and hone the ability to reflect on our patterns, good and bad, and assess their impact on others and how much they contribute towards our goals.
Sometimes understanding this can be the most important step we can take towards becoming a great manager.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Does your boss treat you like they think they 'own' you?

Watching TV the other night, I gazed in disbelief as the Superintendent of a police station yelled at his people: "I own you - I don't care what you think. Just do as I (expletive deleted!) tell you."

I was staggered. Even though it was just on the TV, do bosses still do that? Is that the way they think you get the best out of people?

I checked when the program was made - it was recent. It's usually a good show and the story line mostly believable - but did the scriptwriter base this manager's behavior in reality?

What do you think? Have you or do you experience this behavior from your bosses? If you do, click here and tell me about it - I'd really love to know.

Exploring the House of Wonders
It made me think of a place I visited in Stonetown, Zanzibar - the House of Wonders.

It's called that because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity, and also the first building in East Africa to have an elevator...
... which wasn't working like mostly everything in Tanzania.

In the House of Wonders there are many exhibits on Swahili culture, including a finely carved Drum.
Here's a photo (sorry about the quality) of the explanation of the carvings on the Drum.


As you can see, it says that the Drum is an ancient Swahili insignia of power.

One of the inscriptions reads:

"Your action is a reflection of your leadership.
So call all the people together, including those who behave differently,
for the wise gathers all and satisfies them."

Clearly the Super on the TV hadn't read that inscription.

What does motivate people?

Nor had the Super read what Dr Dean Mobbs, a Senior Investigator Scientist at the MRC-Cognitive and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University UK says about the latest neuroscientific research on the mechanics of Motivation.

And the Super would not be alone. Most performance reviews systems have been designed without reference to what the neuroscientists are telling us.

I cause many HR practitioners to raise their eyebrows when I suggest that most Performance Management systems emphasize the wrong thing.

Focus on performance that ‘has room for improvement' or whatever muddying words the form might say, often engenders anxiety, even fear, for the recipient of such news, especially if salaries or promotions explicitly or implicitly depend on the Review.

And while it's true that getting this feedback might induce short-term improvement, it's unlikely to result in sustained motivation and commitment. The employee is more likely to be engaged in looking for a job elsewhere.

Our social brain is the driver

The research points to what is becoming more and more evident through Mobbs' and other's findings (and our own everyday lived experience) that the social environment is one of the most powerful contributors to how we perform.

I don't mean how many morning teas we go to or drinks after work.

Rather, if our workplace and the behaviors of others in it, appeals to the affiliation and feedback aspects of our social brain, we are more likely to try harder to consistently deliver up a good performance.

That's because, for example as Mobbs says, when we:
*       see those in our ‘in-group' win
*       help others and give advice
*       work in a team
*       hear people say nice things about us
the reward system in our brain is activated.

And we like to feel good, so we do more of whatever brings on that feeling.

Do you have leaders or troglodytes?

It is very easy to get seduced by the ‘system' of Performance Management.

But like all change management strategies, if you want to bring about change, you need to focus on the benefit (the WIFM),the upsides for people to change their, often habitual, ways of doing things.

Our brains are hardwired to focus on things that scare us first - that's The Almond Effect® in action - to make sure we take steps to survive.

But at work, life/death is not usually the issue - a positive environment and happiness is. Without them, employees and especially your best ones, simply go elsewhere for a job.

While many organisations are changing the structure and intent underpinning their performance management systems, you still need good leaders, not troglodytes like the TV Super, to implement them.

It's a key leadership skill that is pivotal to motivating your people to perform to the best of their ability. And crucial to them being willing to change the way they do things.

So reflect for a moment: what does your performance management system emphasize and how well do your managers bring out the best in their teams?

And are you making sure that your organisation is utilizing the best means available to maximize the organisation's results?