Monday, August 18, 2014

Change leader pain - why what others have done poorly in the past impacts what you are trying to do now

'History repeats itself' - as the saying goes. 

Likewise 'once burnt, twice shy'.

And that's a real nuisance if you weren't responsible for the previous bad experience that someone had, that's now it's getting in the way of what you want to do.

What's going on here?

One of the most powerful ways we learn is from others, the experiences and challenges they had and how they dealt with them.

It's why we love stories about what happened to our friends, bosses, co-workers, colleagues, role models, coaches, mentors, even strangers. It is why cultures are built on stories. It is one of the reasons we watch reality TV eg The Block, Biggest Loser, Grand Designs etc, films about real events, real people and why we read biographies.

From real life examples, especially if they have high emotional content, we learn what to do and what not to do, faster than any text book can ever teach us.

And this should strike a note of great concern to those of you who are implementing change.

‘Jaws' and other bad news for sharks

When I am speaking at conferences or running workshops I sometimes include a story about a pretty scary scuba diving experience that I had.

I tell it to make the point that in a life threatening situation, when your amygdala is trying to dictate your actions to ‘save' you, it sometimes gets it wrong. (Fortunately you can learn to over-ride it - I share a tool to teach this)

It's one of those situations when, if you do what your amygdala wants you to do, you could do yourself more harm - the very opposite of the self-protection the amygdala is there to trigger.

In work or other non-life threatening situations, I call this The Almond Effect® - those moments when we act on our amygdala's immediate urge to ‘protect' us from a wrongly perceived threat instead of stopping and thinking about what's logically best to do in the situation.

Oops I hit the send button too soon 

Some examples are - the instant email reply we send and then regret: the blog post we 'enter' before finishing the spell check; dissing a job applicant because they look like someone we don't like: ‘snapping' at a co-worker or even worse, your boss; believing we know what someone is going to say before they even open their mouth!

You'll have to come to one of my sessions to know what the story is (it's better told than written) but one of the occasional unintended consequences is that someone in my audience gets frightened of sharks or of scuba diving or has their trepidations reinforced - the last thing I want to do.

Psst! - Pass it on

So why does this happen? How can a person in the audience become afraid when it is *my* experience that I'm telling. The audience member may never have even snorkelled let alone scuba dived.

Well, an article in an issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience throws some light on a phenomenon that we've probably noticed many times, even perhaps experienced ourselves - that we can become frightened and fearful of something that happened to someone else even though it hasn't happened to us. I still don't like plastic shower curtains because of the film Psycho.

The authors of the study carried out an experiment and concluded that the amygdala responds not only when fear is learned first-hand through our own personal experiences but is also triggered when we see someone else afraid. In other words we can also learn fear second-hand by seeing someone else's fear.

Why isn't this baby afraid of the snake?

Think about it yourself. Is there anything that you are afraid of that you have not directly experienced? For example I know one woman who is afraid of birds simply because her mother was.

Have a look at this picture from

Now this baby isn't scared of snakes. The baby isn't old enough to have seen someone else be frightened of snakes, to witness someone else's fear. So as it is not being hurt itself, it is not afraid.

But what will happen when the baby grows up? Even if the person is never ever harmed by a snake, will it learn to fear snakes from others? A high probability I suspect.

On the other hand think about animal lover and zoo owner, Bindi Irwin, daughter of the famous Steve Irwin who was killed by a stingray barb. She ‘learned' from her father not to be afraid of dealing with dangerous animals.

It will be interesting when the neuroscientists discover how we can learn not to be afraid without using drugs or having brain surgery.

Implications for implementing change

How is this relevant at work?

One of the key reasons that change initiatives fail is because of the history of change in the organisation. If change, or an element of it, has been poorly implemented previously - and even though you didn't do it and/or you may not even have been there at the time - people who had that poor experience remember it and tell others. This will make life difficult for you if you have responsibility for implementing change.

As we know, people are not usually reluctant to share their fears and concerns with colleagues as soon as they become aware of, or even sense rightly or wrongly, that a change is on the way. The rumor machine is very powerful.

This sharing too is natural - a way of protecting the ‘tribe' or group to which you belong. Think again of the opposite - when people do not share potentially dangerous or damaging information with someone because they are not one of ‘us'. Or worse because they are not one of 'us', we are happy to let them fall in harm's way.

Addressing emotions is critical

The study I mentioned earlier suggests that indirectly attained fears may be as powerful as fears originating from direct experiences.

In my work I find that most people are reluctant to voice their fears directly with their managers. But just because they don't raise them doesn't mean to say they are not there.

Nor does it prevent people from sharing and spreading their fears with their colleagues, in fact they are more likely to. If the fears are not addressed then in next to no time you have overt or covert resistance to your change effort.

You have to spend time on their fears even if you don't want to

Spending time reviewing the fears of employees based on their past experiences of change, is a critical element in eliminating one of the factors that cause resistance. Even the fears based on previous experiences  which were not their own.

This study reinforces what we already know - that for successful change we need to focus on emotional reactions especially fear. Yet how many communications about change still focus on the logic of the change? The rational arguments?

How many managers still don't take time to find out what fears their employees may have about an impending change and really address them?

The next time someone says to you that there isn't time to spend time attending to people's fear of things that will or may never happen, or were in the past, tell them about this study.

Remind them that people will share their fears and that without intervention, one person's fears may quickly become the real fears and the cause of resistance of many.


If you want to develop your managers' skills to lead people in difficult and challenging times, please email me about the demonstrable upskilling we achieve through the workshops we offer.

Or if you are planning a conference and looking for a speaker, email me at to find out my availability as I would love to work with you.


Tel: +61 412 509289

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