Thursday, August 25, 2011

I remember it like it happened yesterday...but you probably don’t!

“We’ve tried that before”

“Here we go again”

These two phrases torment every change implementer’s life. They usually signal negativity to the change that you want to instigate.

And these words are not only used by change resistors at work, I’d guess many of you have heard them or even used them yourself at home!

Researchers such as Lila Davachi who study the way that memories are formed and later recalled, say that it is rare that we accurately recall exactly what happened in the first instance. This is because a memory is not a single function or brain system/network.

For example, even if you were close to and witnessed a powerful event like 9/11 or your colleagues made redundant in a restructure, your memory of it might not be as clear as you thought.

There’s a great illustration of this written by Greg Boustead in Scientific American How the brain remembers 9/11

It is an example of Davachi’s explanation at the NeuroLeadership Summit in the USA that memory is never an exact playback of the video of the experience. Rather it is a reconstruction of the event drawn from many different parts of the brain.

And because memories are not stored in a single location, when we ‘remember’ something, we may not remember or recall accurately all the elements of the event.

This topic was discussed at the World Science Festival 2011 in the session on The Unbearable Lightness of Memory

"One of the primary functions of memory is to be able to use our experience of the past to be able to act adaptively in the future" – Elizabeth Phelps

"When we remember an event from the past we are drawing on information that we've actually experienced BUT sometimes we're combining that incorrectly with other things that we may not have experienced. These mistakes can have important consequences, especially in the legal world." – Daniel L. Schacter

We increase the durability of a memory if it has an emotional connection

Some research has been done to show that memories formed in the presence of negative emotions are more likely to be recalled clearly.

Think about your holiday last year. You probably don’t recall the detail of the logistics that went well. But you will definitely recall where and when it went wrong.

For example, earlier this year I travelled in Europe and Africa. I can barely recall the details of the check-in counters in most airports but I can remember the one in Morocco.

I clearly recollect that the check in woman in Marrakesh said: Would you like me to check this through to Johannesburg for you?

And that was the last I saw of my bag for three and a half weeks!

I can easily bring to mind the emotion, the frustration I felt that my bag was lost. And the memory or the whole saga is triggered every time I see an Air France plane or advertisement – guess which airline I flew?

But it would be fascinating to see if my memory of the check-in woman’s words and how the situation was ultimately resolved is accurate.

Overcoming past memories of change

The job of the amygdala is to watch out for signals that might compromise our safety and survival. That’s what The Almond Effect® is: when the amygdalae confuse the actions and behaviours of others in a non-life threatening situation as a threat to our physical survival and cause us to act accordingly with one of the 4 F’s.

If you add this together to what is known about memory recall, then you have to have a plan for what can you do when you hear words of resistance based on perceived history.

Your goal is to reduce the fear, anxieties and stress being stirred up by past memories. Until you do that, the limbic system and especially the amygdala creates a smokescreen which logic and reason will find hard to get through.

As a first step, my suggestion is that you simply accept that their negativity is being triggered by memory whether it is accurate or not. It won’t help if you tell them they’ve got it all wrong. That’s an appeal to their logic at a time when their evolutionary survival instincts are on red alert.

Instead ask them and any others who were around at the time of the previous events, what happened previously or what recollections are triggering their views that it’s all been done before. Then check that against any known facts about the event.

Maybe they were right on the money but I’d bet that their recall of the event will reveal differences between what was happening in the past and what you are proposing now. If they were right then you’ve got some valuable information to work on to ensure that your change activity this time is different and won’t arouse the same negativity.

But if you can show them the difference and explain in positive terms why what is being proposed now is different to what they recall happened last time, you’ve enhanced your chances of change success.

Until a pill is marketed for eliminating particular remembrances that we’d prefer to forget, it’s worth operating on the premise that many of our recalled experiences are based on the feelings we had at that time, not necessarily the facts.

Learning how to deal with these emotions that accompany change will significantly enhance your ability as a change leader.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Getting People to Change

When would you give up your passion? How would you feel if someone told you that you had no choice?

This happened to a good friend recently. She was told that for health reasons she would have to stop scuba diving, at least in the short term, maybe forever.

It was heartbreaking for her. As a keen diver myself, the thought of not being able to explore below the ocean’s surface is simply awful.

Change is hard work whatever the situation

The mechanisms for changing what we love to do or are simply comfortable with, are the same in our personal lives and at work. We have to rewire our brain. We can do this because our brains have plasticity.

The nature and intensity of our motivation to change will differ in various circumstances but regardless of our reasons for wanting to change behaviours or thought patterns, we will have to create new neural pathways and then to use them in preference to the old ones.

Until the new patterns become the new default response, it is hard brain work. Think about when you are tired and how easy it is to default to established patterns.

The old patterns are seductive

For example, when we had our kitchen renovated last year, I still found myself looking in the old place where the cutlery was kept until I got used to the new location.

And recently I was driving back from a meeting in Sydney’s northern suburbs to another at Rushcutters Bay in the East. Coincidentally it’s the same route as if I was going home. I was so busy thinking about what I was going to say at the meeting that I was driving on auto-pilot. I missed the turn to the meeting and found myself on my way home!

(Then I experienced The Almond Effect® and became anxious about being late and the impression that my lateness might create.)

Some other examples: using your old phone’s commands on a new phone, using old keystroke patterns on new systems at work, using approaches that used to work with your our old boss on the new one!

And maybe there are some things that are so hard-wired that people can never change. I am thinking here of a friend from Scotland who has lived more than 40 years in Australia and still has a really strong Scottish accent!

When we have to change, and even if we are strongly motivated to do so, we need to stay actively focused on changing our behaviours.

If not, you may find yourself in a situation where the old behaviours are triggered automatically and the old behaviours reappear.

Our autopilot at work

Many managers seem to overlook this. They become frustrated and impatient with the time it takes for people to adopt change at work.

They get tired of answering questions like:

But what about…? What’s wrong with the existing way? We’ve tried this before, what makes you think it will work this time?

Many questions are rationally based, yet many more have an emotional basis.

As managers, getting commitment to change requires us to respond to those emotion-based concerns even though we are under time pressures and deadlines. It is false economy not to do so.

Successful change leaders know this.

Failure to address the emotionally based questions results in delayed or failed change efforts. After all, these questions are triggered by our amygdala which are concerned with anything that doesn’t fit the existing patterns we know are ‘safe.’

We still see more than 40% of change projects failing to realize the projected goals of the change.

IBM identified the most significant challenge to change as Changing Mindsets and Attitudes in its Global Study Making Change Work 2008.

In a 2009 survey of CEOs, IBM identified Complexity as the number one challenge for CEOs and leaders currently.

Here is one of their recommendations:

“How CEOs can capitalize on complexity:
The effects of rising complexity calls for CEOs and their teams to lead with bold creativity connect with customers in imaginative ways and design their operations for speed and flexibility to position their organisations for twenty-first century success”

So even if Complexity is the number one challenge for leaders, dealing with it may require changed mindsets. Many executives will have to change their own behaviour as well as the behaviours of others.

How do we change ourselves and others?

It’s worth remembering that:

• Humans are hard wired for survival above all else

• Our default thinking is habitual and self-perpetuating

• Everyone is the product of their own experiences with different motivations and unique memories

• Change can be frustratingly slow because it’s hard brain work to rewire – even if it is logical and in the best interests

So to create the optimum conditions, change leaders should:

• acknowledge past patterns were OK at that time

• fully explain the ‘why’ of the change, the WIFM and ‘what will happen ‘if we don’t’

• understand “once is not enough” and send consistent change messages in multiple ways through multiple channels on multiple occasions

• model change – and be congruent

• focus on the emotional side of change; don’t just ‘install’ the new system or process or procedure

• use reward and recognition continuously to embed new brain patterns and behaviour

People don’t change behaviours easily.

This is especially true in workplaces with cultures and histories that are slow and resistant to change. A structured approach and full understanding of how people change is essential for managers and other change agents in today’s fast-moving world where ironically slowing down to get people on board, might be the optimal way to speed up.

As Marilyn Ferguson said:
“No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or emotional appeal.”