Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Using neuroscience to make change work in your organisation

Out-Law Analysis | 16 May 2022 | 3:36 pm | 7 min. read

Change is a constant background to the commercial world, but for many organisations and teams adapting to change and getting the best out of it is a significant challenge.

Businesses and individuals are expected to be good at change – to adapt and move on. However, it is not a sign of weakness, inflexibility or narrow-mindedness if you raise your hand and say “I’m not comfortable about this”.

A recent round table of legal operations professionals and in-house lawyers, organised by Pinsent Masons together with LexisNexis, discussed the challenges of change, why change makes people uncomfortable, and how to manage ourselves and others to get the best out of change.

Why change is scary

At its core, anxiety about change is one of the most primitive natural responses. It is a version of the fight or flight reaction, but focusing on the instinct to ‘avoid’ a threat or ‘approach’ a reward.

Neuroscientist and author David Rock created the SCARF model for the five social triggers, any of which can be engaged as an aspect of our response to an imminent change in our professional and personal lives:

  • status – because we are descended from creatures whose status in the pack brought privileges, a change threatening that status makes us feel nervous
  • certainty – our brains are prediction machines, and anything that makes predicting what happens next hard – and so being able to survive it – puts us on edge
  • autonomy – we like to have choice, not to have decisions taken out of our hands. We need to have control of our destinies
  • relatedness – as social animals, we like to be part of the pack, to have people who will look out for us in times of need, and to feel a sense of belonging with that group
  • fairness – survival often depends on a need to trade, to barter. And through that we have developed a sense of what is fair. If we feel we are being treated unfairly, that same threat response is triggered.

These five reasons why change might be challenging can be used to manage your response to change, and to help manage others through an anticipated change by focusing on the relevant factors.

Round table delegates particularly identified with threats to fairness and autonomy. LexisNexis director of strategic markets Mark Smith said he had noticed that among lawyers, ‘relatedness’ features less as an issue – perhaps due to a tendency towards introversion.

Impact of change-related stress

Physiologically, when the flight-or-fight response is triggered, our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. Optimal performance can often happen with a certain level of stress that is, at times, energising. But too much continued triggering of these reflexes can have damaging short and longer term impacts.

You could find yourself ‘attention tunnelling’, focusing on the one matter in hand to the exclusion of everything else, including potentially your team’s well-being; suffering from temporary memory degradation; or getting so fixed on getting through things that decision-making becomes increasingly inflexible. Awareness that these might be an issue when under stress can help you deal with these in the short term.

Longer term, continued exposure to the types of stress reflexes that come through repeated stresses and injections of adrenaline can cause hypertension, risk of cardiovascular disease and suppression of the immune system, all harking back to the physical responses to danger which we have evolved to survive.

Dealing with the uncertainty of change

In modern business life, needing to survive existential threats is rarely the order of the day. So, we have developed ways of getting round some of the threats that change can bring.

One is by distraction – putting the change to the back of our minds, ignoring it, and getting on with something else instead. This does not just apply to big threats: everyone has at times distracted themselves from a tricky project or email.

Halliwell David October_2019 new

David Halliwell

Partner, Vario, Managed Legal Services

Even though change might not always be comfortable, recognising why we are uneasy will help

Another way of handling the threat of change is by rumination – chewing the cud over and over as we look to analyse the position, but typically involving a negative emotional quality and approach to analysing the problem.

Neither of these strategies has proven helpful in the longer term, and research suggests in many cases they increase the level of distress experienced.

Using ‘selective attention’, which is objectively looking at the situation and not fixating on the negative aspects, can help. One way of doing this is to look at the situation through the lens of businessman and author Stephen Covey’s three circles:

  • the central circle is what we can actually control, and so this is where we should focus our actions;
  • the outer circle is things that concern us but we have no control over. We might need to be aware of that fact, but it is probably not worth expending emotional energy over what we can’t control;
  • in between is the circle of influence, things which are under other people’s control, but where we have some relationship with those people and so may be able to effect some change through our influencing behaviours.

The more time we spend in the circle of control, the greater our effectiveness, and so that is where we should spend a large part of our emotional energy when reflecting – constructively – on the impact of change and what can be done about it. Remembering things you can do through influencing others can get you a long way towards your goal.

Delegates at the round table shared practical experiences of working with this model, including asking a team to write down the things they were worried about, before categorising them into these circles. Focussing on those they could control allowed them to move forward – and doing the exercise itself brought the team together as they looked to change their organisation.

Reframing the response

One way of dealing with the emotional response, and arguably the most natural, is to express it. There will be some situations where a leader’s authentic expression of emotion can help a team both to appreciate the leader’s vulnerability and that they are ‘all in this together’.

But there will be other times when leaders choose to suppress the emotion, tamp it down, and not expose this emotional turmoil. That can be the right thing for a leader to do.

However, studies have shown not only that doing that can have physiological impacts, such as raising your own blood pressure, but also that other people can sense something is going on, through micro-expressions and signals. Team members can not only pick up on the situation, but also the on fact that something is being hidden.

A third way of dealing with the response, which some psychologists are arguing is so important that it should be taught at school, is cognitive reappraisal. That means reframing the same situation by applying a new meaning to the same set of facts. Applying a positive meaning instead of a negative one can actually provoke a different emotional response and different behaviour.

You can get to a reframed answer by asking yourself questions such as ‘what am I assuming here?’, ‘what could I learn from this?’, ‘is there a challenge rather than a threat in this?’, or ‘what would a wise friend tell me to do?’

Supporting teams through change

One of the risks with change in an organisation is it is often perceived to be far more simplistic than it is. A new set of behaviours are identified, team members are trained in what they have to do, and then let go to do their tasks. But this change often does not work.

The MAPS model – motivation, ability, psychological capital, and supporting environment –proposed by Shlomo Ben-Hur and Nik Kinley gives leaders a framework to look at the environment in the round to identify if all the enablers are in place to make the change stick.

Motivation is all about identifying whether the people involved are motivated to make the change. Some of this will come from extrinsic motivation – rewards and punishment - and things like compensation systems can help to make change stick.

Change is much more likely to be long-lasting if the motivation to change is intrinsic. Self-determination theory tells us that there are three big drivers of motivation at work: autonomy, about people having a sense of choosing their own destiny and direction; mastery, about getting better at doing things and becoming skilled; and purpose, both in the sense of a higher social purpose and about connecting with teammates and doing a good job together.

A change which builds on those drivers of intrinsic motivation will have a better chance of working on the long run.

Ability requires an understanding of what capabilities team members have to make a change. Managers should make sure they really understand capability gaps and how to fill them, as well as people’s different ways of learning and the need to have safe places to try out new ways of doing things.

Psychological capital is about understanding where people are in their belief in their ability to do it, and their resilience. Are there other things going on in their life which may reduce these capabilities, and how can we enhance people’s psychological capital through what we are doing?

The concept of the supporting environment looks at the social norms in the organisation about this type of change – how people get support for what they are doing, the systems underpinning performance, and the little changes that might have a big impact that can be made.

Reflecting on these factors, organisationally but potentially also at an individual level, can make the difference between a change that lives up to its billing, or yet another corporate initiative that withers and leaves little impact.

So even though change might not always be comfortable, recognising why we are uneasy will help. Reframing the issues can look at the positive perspective, and thoughtful engagement with the processes involved, the human psychological impact and how people can be supported through a change process can help get people to place where they and the organisation are happy with the outcome.