It’s no secret that change is fast becoming the norm for most organisations in the UK. As we covered in our recent roundtable, Evolve and Thrive: Brexit, a crucial decider of whether an organisation will be successful is how effectively leaders can support their people through change.
I was privileged to present as part of the panel at Evolve and Thrive about the psychology of change. If organisations want to keep employees engaged and productive through the change process, they need to understand how people think, feel about, and react to change. The key, in my experience, is to understand our natural tendency to look for risks, to help people understand what happens in our brains when we go through uncertain times, and enable them to become comfortable with uncertainty.
In researching this topic, I came across a very helpful book by Hilary Scarlett (Neuroscience for Organisational Change: An Evidence Based Practical Guide to Managing Change). Hilary talks about ways in which we can help people to be productive during times of change based on her research into neuroscience and how the brain has developed and reacts.
Hilary recommends that we can follow some simple strategies in order to move us more towards rewards rather than away from a threat and I thought it may be useful to think about some of these in the context of Brexit:
At the moment, the grand plan for Brexit still feels very hazy. It’s hard to see what the final outcome will be and as such your organisation may be planning for several scenarios. As the plans start to formulate and we get more answers, the plan may be large and complex. Hilary reminds us that when we get into the implementation phase it will be important to find and focus on short-term goals and “quick wins”. The reason for this is that completing tasks or achieving goals releases dopamine into our systems, which makes us feel good – and that can be harnessed in the context of change. Breaking down large, strategic initiatives into short-term goals gives people regular hits of dopamine, helping them to stay happy and motivated – and therefore productive – during change.
Brexit might not seem like the most obvious situation for laughter – but finding ways to bring people together and smile helps fill everyone’s need for social connection. As one of our European colleagues at Evolve and Thrive noted, those opportunities should be sensitive to cultural differences – getting together to enjoy a good Monty Python sketch may not appeal so much to colleagues from China, or Germany, for example!
Much as humans don’t generally enjoy change, we also don’t really enjoy repetition either. Finding ways to break up monotony piques our interest and keeps us interested in the task at hand. In fact, Caroline Kitcher of TUI shared a great example of how they combine this with opportunities for laughter: their Brexit lead aims to include pop song lyrics in his email updates about Brexit. It’s a small thing, but it always makes them smile – and makes sure that they read all his emails!
To most of us, information equates to certainty. If we don’t get that information, we’ll often make up our own to provide a sense of certainty. So, if you don’t communicate regularly with people about plans and developments, they’ll invent their own narrative about what’s happening – and given human beings’ natural tendency to spot negativity in situations instead of positivity, this can damage productivity. In terms of Brexit, this means that even when we don’t know all the answers – even if we have no news to share – it’s important that we communicate what we do know, or that we have nothing more to share at this time. As with all communication, making sure it is done at regularly anticipated times helps people feel informed, and therefore more certain.
Humans like to draw their own conclusions about issues. Hilary’s book describes how people are more open to change if they have been given time to think about that change and gain their own insights into it. In the context of Brexit, it’s worth thinking about how leaders can enable opportunities for discussions and debate and help coach people so that they come up with their own solutions to the challenges Brexit provides. In our discussions at Evolve and Thrive we discovered that the experts on Brexit may not necessarily be the leaders in your organisation – so how can you find out who these people are and enable them to help others come to their own insights?