Or at least the way we think about it should be.
Who - Mark Hayward FCMI
Role - Head of Operations and Supply Chain
In this modern world, the need for a company to evolve and grow is fundamentally a prerequisite to its very survival. In almost every organisation I have come across there have been a multitude of change initiatives from simple efficiency projects to full blown lean implementations and onwards to organisational transformation (the management term often used to describe redundancies). And in every case, there have been elements of resistance to that change.
The long-term success of every business is dependent on the company changing the day-to-day behaviour of its people. Improved ways of working, new machinery, new products and better, faster processes. However, change is painful and in particular as the focus on mental health grows the impact of the change on the employee is becoming something we as leaders should be more mindful of.
So why is change so difficult? It is relatively easy to identify an inefficiency for example and propose a change but not so straight forward to make that change actually happen effectively and even harder to make that change become ingrained. And the reason is that every company employs individuals that are, well – individual.
Often a change program is not the subject of one person but of a group or a team or a department. The change is identified and applied to the group/team/dept and the leaders expect the group to behave in way aligned to the change program. But each individual within the collective interprets the requirements and the change in a different way, simply because we are all unique.
As an experiment, I have a test for you that I have used many times in my career. Imagine a bottle of something, I tend to use red wine in my example, and imagine pouring a single glass of whatever it is and ask two people to try it. Will they be tasting the same wine?
Whilst there may be some contention raised the answer is No, they are not tasting the same wine. The reason is because of the way we interpret experience. Both of the two-people involved would sip the wine and then process that against every other glass of wine they have had in their life. Both lives have followed a completely different path and with different life experiences and therefore the interpretation will be completely different.
The employees of every organisation are no different. Implement a change program and each person will process that request against every other moment in their life. It’s human nature, or to be more precise it’s down to neuroscience. Advanced research into the integration between psychology and neuro synaptic pathways tells us that there is a strong link between the way the brain processes experience and the way the mind interprets that into thoughts, feelings and actions and more importantly emotion.
Although modern research is telling us more about how the brain works some of its core components haven’t moved on since the cave man days. When you look at what the brain is designed to do it’s very primal. Its purpose put simply is to enable us to survive. The prefrontal cortex, an energy intensive part of the brain, controls working memory. This brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour. So, this is a rational logical part of the brain and the one we want to work with to enable change. However, our emotions get in the way. The emotional part of our brain processes information milliseconds earlier than the rational brain. The Iimbic brain, which includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, the amygdala and the thalamus, is primarily responsible for our emotional life, and has a lot to do with the processing of memories. The amygdala is a huge part of our problem here. Output from our senses are received by the thalamus. The thalamus sends part of its stimuli directly to the amygdala or "emotional/irrational brain", and sends the rest to the neocortex or "thinking/rational brain". If the amygdala perceives a match to a record of experiences in the hippocampus it can interpret it as a fight, flight or freeze situation, then the amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain before its even had chance to get the data.
This process is called the Amygdala hijack, and it is critical to our survival if it was really at stake, but in a work environment it often just gets in the way. The emotional part of our brain has activated the fear response based on previous memories and it cannot determine the difference between different types of fear. It just knows fear for fear sake as it keeps us alive. In the case of change initiatives, it’s fear associated with things like job losses, more work and inability to cope, cost cutting and what is experienced by the leaders is resistance.
Let’s dig a little deeper into some of the emotional anxieties that a change programme could create:
Fear of failure (particularly new skills or processes). Does everyone feel confident that they can deliver what is expected? This is often the one that is most difficult to accurately assess either through people not admitting they don’t know or through sheer pride and image of expertise.
Lack of clarity. Does everyone understand the need to change or what actions needed to be taken? Having a clear vision and goal is one thing but do the individuals involved know what they need to do differently
Attachment to habits/skills. Does the change take away part of someone’s identity? The value someone holds about their role might not be the same after the change. Take a good engineer that has become an expert at firefighting? A super hero! But will he accept autonomous maintenance as good way forward and accept potentially losing his super hero status?
Being imposed on. Do the people feel included in the process? Often linked to lack of clarity but everyone wants to feel as though their voice is heard.
Cognitive Dissonance. Is the change breaking some of the organisational values or beliefs? Whether the value/belief is actually broken or not is irrelevant if some people feel that it is "being infringed on."
Saturation. Have too many change programmes been tried before? Often organisations have tried to implement changes previously only for things to go back the way they were before. How did the previous change impact the individuals?
The last piece of the brain to mention is the basal ganglia which is responsible for repetitive behaviours, reward experiences, and focusing attention. One of the key outcomes from the infamous Hawthorn experiment conducted by Elton Mayo at the Western Electric company in the late 1920’s was the need for recognition, security and sense of belonging. It was more important in determining workers’ morale and productivity than the physical conditions under which they work. The uniqueness of this experiment was how the participants showed greater increases in productivity when they were included in the decisions about the changes. There were perhaps two primary reasons for this both of which are connected to the basal ganglia and the amygdala; firstly, was the reward of being included and feeling valued (emotional brain) and how that shaped the experience and secondly was around the focus from the observer increased attention and reduced fear (also emotional brain).
The principle behind focused attention stretches into the realm of quantum mechanics. The observer effect of quantum physics states that the behaviour of an atom changes when that entity is observed. In 2005 Henry Stapp and Jeffrey Schwartz published a paper linking the quantum observer effect on the mental experience when close attention is paid to an activity. Applied to neuroscience focusing mental attention stabilises the brain circuits which allows new neuro synaptic pathways to be created which leads to a change in behaviour.
So back to our red wine experiment, any change programme will create a very different set of emotions for each individual all based on how their emotions are wired. Proactively managing change will take time and will need to dig into the individual irrational fears of everyone involved and that’s where effective leadership comes in.
Quite often when change programmes are started little focus is put on the one thing that is critical to its success – the psychological experience of the irrational emotional individual and the level of anxiety that the fear response has created. It’s not their fault after all, they are only human.
About the author
Mark Hayward graduated from Hull University in 1999 with an honours degree in Management Science followed by a diploma in Psychotherapy. He has gained significant knowledge and experience in change programmes and lean implementations from multinational FMCG organisations spanning a 20-year career. He has given keynote talks on motivation, fierce conversations and the art of resilience. He is also a qualified chef and regularly found in the kitchen being creative.