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Our brains are constantly on the lookout for signs of threats or rewards – evaluating everything to see if it’s dangerous or helpful.

Clearly the survival of early man depended on this, but our brains work the same way today – they’re trying to minimise danger for us by encouraging us to move ‘away from’ threats, and ‘towards’ things that may offer reward. Generally though, our ‘away from’ response triggers stronger, more powerful, and longer lasting emotions – so we ignore that at our peril.

The result is that we pay more attention to ‘threats’ and sometimes miss out on the things that trigger ‘reward’ and make us feel better.

Under a perceived threat, people feel anxious, think less clearly and are not as productive. The areas of the brain linked to emotions take up so much energy and processing power, that when we are in a state of emotional overdrive, the rest of the brain doesn’t have enough resource left to be effective.

Anyone involved in, or affected by, a change initiative will typically be feeling a lot of uncertainty. They’ll be wondering how their future will be affected by the new things being introduced, resulting in a perception of threat. These feelings put our brains into “away from” mode and high emotional overdrive.

Engaging people in the change process

Major change initiatives mean people have to deal with a greater sense of uncertainty and more unknowns. Our brains strive to make patterns from the information available and fill in all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle; they crave certainty.

One way that we pursue certainty is through autonomy and control – the freedom to make choices. Daniel Pink in The surprising truth about what motivates us* says autonomy is one of the three key elements that motivates people. Anyone who has been micro-managed, with no leeway around how they get their job done, will appreciate the importance of this.

When we’re under pressure and feeling anxious, we try and suppress these feelings, and ignore them. But this just takes up even more energy and doesn’t deal with the problem. It’s important for change managers to recognize this potentially destructive pattern and to involve people, allowing them to shape how the changes apply to them. This gives them back a sense of control and autonomy, and draws them away from the threat response.

Even the smallest perception of choice affects the brain’s emotional response, so it doesn’t feel so threatened. For instance, if you’re stuck on a train due to signalling problems, you can focus all your energy on how frustrating and annoying this is, or save your energy and choose to use the time to read or relax.

You may feel you have very little choice over the departmental change that has just been announced – but if you are allowed to make small choices, this will have a big impact on the signals your brain receives. It’s a question of moving things from being perceived as a threat to being a reward. This reduces stress and helps people become more efficient.

Consider how you can engage people in your change process, giving them a sense that they are able to influence outcomes, and triggering emotions that will make them move forward productively.

*Daniel Pink, 2011, Canongate Books

A special thank you to ChangeQuest‘s Ranjit Sidhu for authoring this piece 


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