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Why Your Brain Views Change as a Saber-Tooth Tiger

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February 10, 2016

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Human Resources Change Management

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, a 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.

change managementWhat 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. The figure below describes human characteristics in each state.

change management

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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