Friday, October 04, 2013

What do you do when they say 'We've tried that before'?

"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. 

Is your memory as accurate as you think?

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

Some work 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 amygdalacreates a smokescreen which logic and reason will find hard to get through. 

First step

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. 

Explain the difference

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.