Engagement, Emotion and Change Management

What makes us pay attention to something?  What attracts us to something, or repels us?  What makes us want to know more?  These are questions of engagement.  And the answers to them are found in how the brain regulates behavior.

In the first blog entry of this series on the neuroscience of emotions for change management I set the stage for understanding engagement (and resistance, cooperation, and commitment) by considering aspects of neuro-evolution and neuroanatomy relevant to change management.   To up our game in change management we need a renewed interest in the role of emotions in organizational behavior.  We need a deeper understanding of subtle brain processes that drive organizational staff (and leaders) toward or away from needed change.  In this entry we’ll explore, briefly, how these concepts relate to engagement.

Unavoidably, people will react – almost instantaneously – to their perceptions regarding new information – whether positive, negative, or neutral.  Individual perceptions will be determined by the character and experience of the individual:  his/her personal history, beliefs, values, expectations, habits, goals, social status, competence, and relationships.  Reactions will be shaped by all of this background and then “delivered” to that person’s consciousness as an overall emotional reaction.   And, broadly, this is good.

The utility of having an emotional reaction is that in one “feeling” all of the various and pertinent background perspectives can be delivered to consciousness to set the stage for “how to think about” the new information.   The ability to form an immediate posture toward a situation was critical for evolutionary survival.  Survival on the savanna is first about reaction, and only later about thinking or analysis.

The reaction we immediately experience with new information then automatically begins to “color” how further information is processed.   After that first moment we begin to be biased – toward or away from new information.   Critically, logic comes into play only if emotion “allows” it.  If we are not too frightened, or too needy or otherwise too emotional we can consider new information for its more objective elements.  But, the analytical frontal lobe of the brain is released when emotion allows its engagement.  This restriction happens from our first encounter with new information.

How often have you heard “that’ll never work” as an immediate, “gut level”, reaction to new idea that is proven over time to actually work well?  Since factually the new idea was good why was there such an immediate negative reaction?  The answer rests in the emotional reaction that occurred in the nay-sayers.  The emotion may have been derived from fear of the consequences if the new idea does work (e.g. signaling a career risk) or perhaps from limits to current perspectives about what is possible.   Whatever the reason, the critical issue for change managers is that emotions may limit people’s ability to accept change from their very first encounter with new information or new ideas; and, this happens because of automatic systems within the brain rather than because people just want to be difficult.

Thus, when change is going to be major it is critical to “make a good first impression” – to present new information in a way where recipients will be more likely inclined toward a relatively positive disposition to the information.  If the initial reaction is positive, or at least neutral, then this is relatively simple.  But, how can a positive initial reaction be created when the new information will be negative (to the individual recipient)?

I opened this post with some questions about what determines how we react to new information.  I’m now going to explore the answers to those questions at the same time as we consider how to make a good first impression (even where the content of information might incline a negative reaction).

Initial information should come from “my group”.

Evolutionary programming makes us predisposed to be more positive, or at least attentive, toward information which comes from people we emotionally define as “my group”.   It is an excessive digression to examine in detail how people define “my group” but broadly we define our group by observing people who carry more-or-less the same values, beliefs, and location as we do.  (“Location” is complex.)  So, where change is going to be major (and particularly where it is going to have negative implications) it is best to have the first information about the change come from group peers of the people affected by the change.  Bluntly, where change is going to be negative the first information regarding the change should not come from distant leadership.  It should come from respected peers who have been themselves carefully prepared to deliver the information.

Initial information should reveal an obvious advantage to change.

The first information about change should reveal either an opportunity for advantage or a problem with the current state, rather than initially focusing on coming change itself.  If people see that there is pending opportunity or a necessity to avoid a coming problem then they internally begin to move toward the idea of change.  Thus, when a developed plan for change is announced secondarily a general bias toward accepting the change may already be in motion.  “Priming” the audience toward an inclination to act should come first.  Organizational change broadly tends to be resisted because it disturbs the benefits of known ways of acting within the organization.   Telling people “we’re going to change” as the first information leads them to say internally “but I don’t want to” (because I’ve got the current game figured out and I don’t want to loose what I have gained).  Alternatively, opening with “there is an opportunity for us, and…” or “our organization is at risk because…, and…” leads the brains of listeners to move into a positive disposition toward change.

Initial information should be sensitive to current culture.

A good friend and colleague, Gail Severini, has written and reminds us: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  By this she advocates the wisdom that the best laid ideas and plans may succumb to deeply embedded culture.  Culture is powerful.

In the early stage of advocating change give credence to the deeply embedded behaviors – the culture – that currently exists, and a reason why they should be disturbed.  The processes of changing an organization’s culture are complex and have been explored in many published works.  We won’t examine the subject deeply here.  However, from the earliest discussions of coming change it is important to remember that deeply held beliefs, values, and patterns of behavior are not quickly nor easily changed.  Build engagement with new proposals (and avoid resistance) by acknowledging, “this is the way we have been doing things, and it has worked; however, a change in the business environment requires us to rethink and re-arrange.”

Initial information should be sensitive to current habits.

Habits are simple in behavioral terms.  By themselves habits are only well-learned, useful solutions to common problems or situations.  By themselves and when not tied to deeply held values or beliefs they require some work to change but they are not a major problem to change.  For example, if you buy a new car it may take a little while to “get used to” where the new controls are, and how the new car works.  But, because you are willing to make the change the habit is changed soon enough, with relative ease.

However, the word “habit” is often extended to neurological constructs that are much more than habit:  beliefs, values, and expectations.  Beliefs are overarching views of how the world works (or how it “should” work).  Values are guiding principles regarding how life and goals “should” be pursued.  Expectations are developed perspectives regarding what is likely to occur (or not) along a journey toward goals or living.   Neurologically these are more complex than habits because they are more tied to views of “self”.   We don’t like being told to change our “self”.

Habits, the simpler construct, are again learned solutions to common problems/situations.  When introducing coming change it is important to acknowledge that they exist and allow both the time and the flexibility for individuals to build new habits.  Depending on various circumstances changing simple habits generally takes days to weeks.  Conversely, where deeply held beliefs, values, expectations are involved then change may take months, years, or may not ever be accomplished.

Initial information on change should imply competence to deal with the change.

Where initial information is too frightening or too confusing there is a tendency to “freeze” in the face of the change (think: “deer in the headlights”)  or entrench in current behaviors.  So, a clear message that “we have a plan” will create more receptiveness to the change.  Ideally, the competence message should also include a group-support message, such as “We’re considering all of our people and our group goals in our plan.”  Of course, in any major change it is probable some staff will change; however, in the first impression of a coming change it is important for recipients to know they have been considered in some positive way.

Initial information should be supportive of relationships.

Through evolution we have come to be group oriented.  We build relationships and these influence how we respond to change.  In any major organizational change relationships are bound to change, more or less.  Yet, since these are important determinants of engagement it is optimal to acknowledge this aspect of coming change.  Even a broad message can be helpful, like: “We know you’ve built relationships in our organization and as much as possible we are considering these in our plans for the future.”  By such a statement the organization does not have to be saying that relationships will remain unchanged, only that relationships are important and are being considered.  Of course, much more can be done to utilize this critical aspect of change implementation; however, this must suffice for this post.

Initial information should be sensitive to coming status changes.

With any major change people within the organization may anticipate changes in their status.  Again for evolutionary reasons, we are very sensitive to information that changes our status within our group.  So, initial information about planned changes should be cautious with anticipated status changes.  Changes in status may derive from a number of sources, including peer relationships, privileges, income, opportunities, and so forth.  When bringing a major change to a large organization is it not possible at the outset to address all of these issues as they may apply to a large group of individuals.  However, to some reasonable extent initial information should at least be sensitive to how a major change may affect the status of personnel; and, where possible, imply consideration of the subject.  This may be most important in a merger or other major change where joining of organizations will bring competition for position between analogous groups.

For purposes of this blog post, this is as far as we will go.  The big concept to carry away is that people will react emotionally from their very first contact with coming change and that reaction will bias later reactions.  Objective analysis can be neurologically blocked by strong emotional reaction.   This isn’t a criticism.  It is an observation regarding how the brain works.

All of the above relate to sophisticated delivery of change messages.  When an organizational change will be delivered to staff that are very fungible (easily replaced by an equivalent “cog in the wheel”) then the older command-and-control style of presentation can be used.  Staff will either need to adapt or they will be replaced.  Sophisticated processing of how they feel about it is less critical.  However, increasingly staff are more specifically trained or experienced for their organizational positions; and, more staff are well-educated people with higher expectations.   The costs of replacing such staff are higher.  Therefore, the older command-and-control style of leadership is necessarily giving way to newer models of leadership which center on building engagement, willingness, cooperation, and collaboration (as implied by the Walter Wriston quote which opened the first post in this series).  So, the above approaches are more critical to newer organizational situations.

Thus far in this series we’ve considered how the human brain processes incoming information through deep brain structures that are closely tied to emotional reactions.  These emotional reactions are important results of evolution.  They are systems for orchestrating whole-body reactions to information – reactions which may serve to facilitate capturing opportunity, fleeing from risk, defending from risk, or investigation of possible opportunity.   Emotions must never be undervalued.  They are critical to human function.  To be sure, they may get in the way of “cool-headed” analysis but this is simply a testimony to the fact that cool-headed analysis is a relatively new occurrence on the evolutionary scene.  We may train ourselves to “control our emotions” but there are limits to how much that can be done.  In addition, there is a price to pay for burying emotional reactions.  The brain is not designed to ignore them.  When emotions are ignored a set of ambivalences develop within the brain and those ambivalences reduce personal effectiveness (or even generate clinical illness through stress and/or psychiatric discord).

A goal of good change management is therefore to orchestrate delivery of change information such that emotional reactions within staff do not subvert the change effort.  This goal is promoted in its first instance by delivering information about change that is both powerful (leading to attention) and constructive (providing a path toward positive resolution).  The information may, and often should, contain a message of risk.  Routinely this is very important to incite movement away from the status quo.  But, the delivery of that risk message must be coupled with a path toward opportunity so that positive engagement in change is created, rather than just anxious flight (which can produce highly disruptive responses for the individual and also the organization).

The art of creating engagement in change management is thus the science and art of orchestrating emotional reaction to change information.  Correctly orchestrated, engagement is the first step in the process toward effective change.

In the next post we’ll look at resistance.  Change often puts people at risk.  When this is the case then resistance to the change is anticipated.



1 thought on “Engagement, Emotion and Change Management

  1. Pingback: Engagement, Emotion and Change Management | LimbicZen

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