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Making the Change Tiger Purrrr

In light of current U.S. economic woes, OD professionals now face the daunting task of trying to do more with less as resources are cut, budgets slashed, and business goals are recalibrated. Indeed, if you were to survey OD leaders generally regarding what was top of the “professional wish list” for 2009, the results would probably include re-engaging confidence and focus in the workplace and equipping our leaders with skills to embrace and navigate successfully through change and difficult working conditions.

Solutions to organizational change and instability were top of mind at the recent Neuroleadership Summit in New York where neuroscientists and business leaders gathered to share their latest findings about maximizing human potential in a changing workplace.

It seems there is now one common and essential thread to successfully inspiring high performance and behavior change in turbulent times. It comes not in a bottle, but is what David Rock refers to as a quieter approach to leadership—the latest in neuroscience tells us that there are key techniques to creating the right environment for people to think in new ways and be inspired to take action to resolve issues and try new ways of doing things.

It Really Is a Jungle Out There
In order to be inspired to change behavior, you need to have your own insights, making new connections; literally forming new neural pathways that enable a different way of thinking or action to take place. Without the right stress-free conditions, however, new insights do not occur, and thinking and behavior doesn’t change. No matter how sophisticated and glossy the change initiative or how large the dangling carrot or stick, if people are not able to connect the dots in new ways for themselves, nothing happens and organizational change strategies fail.

Latest findings in neuroscience tell us that our brains are socially wired, and always on the lookout for potential threats to our survival. Environmental and social change is stressful to the brain. Such change is picked up on the brain’s radar as potential danger. The most primitive parts of the brain are continuously scanning for danger in every interaction we have.

When it comes to leadership and change in the workplace, however, it is the most recently evolved part of the brain that we need to engage: the Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC). The PFC is a small area in the front of the brain that acts as the executive centre, or control panel for evaluating new thoughts, focusing and making cognitive decisions. It is limited in capacity and very sensitive to stress and the biochemical noise of perceived “danger.” As a leader and orchestrator of change, you need to engage your own PFC and that of every other brain in the organization if you want desired change to occur efficiently and successfully.

When overwhelmed by the stress and uncertainty of change in the workplace, your PFC shuts down and a cocktail of stress hormones flood your system as the social brain prepares the body for fight or flight. The sensitive PFC will not function under such noisy conditions of internal alarm bells caused by stress. You can literally no longer hear yourself think!

Associate Professor of Neurobiology at Yale University Medical School, Amy Arnsten, refers to the PFC as “the stomach of the brain.” Just like the PFC, your stomach stops working in times of stress, diverting energy to the heart and muscles instead as you prepare for danger.

So leaders and managers wanting to drive change need to create a working environment that fosters a quiet brain, conducive to the healthy functioning of everyone’s PFC. That is, a leadership and communication style where the focus is on creating a sense of safety and rapport between everyone in the workplace. Such an environment minimizes the likelihood that employees brains are not constantly in a state of alarm and therefore in low productivity and engagement. When you create rapport with others you enable them to focus, have insights about new ways of doing things, and most importantly to consider new perspectives on change or difficult situations, ultimately changing behavior. As Neuroscientist Jeffery Schwartz puts it, “Through re-appraisal, we are able to change our perspective, which changes the way the brain processes the scene.”

Taming the Tiger
So what are these ideal conditions that foster change and encourage new thinking? And how do you make sure that leaders are creating such an environment for employees in the workplace?

Well, neuroscience confirms that people need to feel safe in order to contemplate doing something new or challenging. Neither carrots nor sticks alone bring about sustained effective change. So let’s think about something new as a metaphor. Let’s call it a SCARF. You can do a number of things with a scarf, including keeping yourself safe and warm. Let us focus on this and look at the function of the SCARF model, developed by Results Coaching Systems (RCS) for teaching managers how to inspire and interact with employees to bring about desired changes in the way they think and operate.

The SCARF model is based on neuroscience and represents the five social elements that all managers need to take care of in communication with others, to create a quieter state in the brain, engaging their PFC and lowering their threat response. These five elements are listed below:

  1. Status
  2. Certainty
  3. Autonomy
  4. Relatedness
  5. Fairness

Taking care of the above five elements actually decreases a person’s likely threat response and instead creates a safer, quieter environment for the PFC to function and deal with change, uncertainty, and new information more effectively.

Let’s look at each element, and what that means in a workplace context.

Status—Given that your brain is socially wired, you are constantly scanning to see where you sit in your social or professional group. If you feel you are going up in status, you get a positive reward response in the brain such as dopamine. If you feel a threat to your status, you feel stressed and the noisy threat response takes over, inhibiting your effectiveness and PFC function.

Certainty—The brain likes to predict and find patterns in your environment. Too much uncertainty, e.g., an unexpected change in agenda, information, or surroundings, triggers a threat response and the PFC is disabled, limiting your ability to re-appraise, evaluate, and make effective decisions.

Autonomy—This is the experience of buying into or having a choice in a course of action or decision. When you tell or inflict a message or situation upon someone, there is pushback because of a sense of not having a choice in the circumstances. This produces a threat and away response in the brain.

Relatedness—This is all about whether someone is an ally or enemy. The ability for leaders to create a sense of trust in every dialogue with employees is critical to fostering a (low threat) quiet state for the collective PFC to function properly, allowing for focused contemplation of new perspectives and behaviors.

Fairness—When you feel that a situation or outcome is fair, you get a reward response in the brain and can align with this decision or outcome. However, if you feel that integrity or ethics are at risk for example, you experience a negative and alerted response in the brain, and cognitive decision thinking stops.

Taking care of these five elements in your workplace communication is an immensely powerful mechanism for driving desired change. These latest findings about how the brain works have massive and exciting implications on how you can effectively maximize workforce engagement. It is all about making the jungle a safer place to think, work, create, and grow.