Leading for Change, with the (social) brain in mind by Aurora Aritao (Guest Blogger)

Updated: 29 May 2016

Business concept. Illustration of collaboration, teamwork and creative thinking

Business concept. Illustration of collaboration, teamwork and creative thinking

How many change initiatives do you know of that were successfully implemented with zero conflict, with all targets achieved, within budget, and on schedule?

Despite all our best intentions, studies consistently show between fifty-to-seventy percent of planned change efforts fail. It’s no surprise that rapid organizational change is the No. 2 leadership development challenge in the next two to five years[1].

Many managers get busy focusing on change management, the operational or structural side of change, but give significantly disproportionate resources and effort to the people side of change.  Fundamental to this is the challenge of how to motivate people throughout the many phases of change. 

In my role as people manager in various large multinationals, I saw contextually varying levels of commitment and performance from employees. I wondered for some time what truly drives motivation.  The more I searched the closer I got to the brain.  I looked deeper into two basic concepts that helped me understand why some people embrace change, and others don't:

  • A core organizing principle of the brain, as coined by Dr Evian Gordon, CEO of Brain Resource Limited is to maximize reward and minimize threat [2].

  • Our brain is our social organ. We are wired to connect.

Threat vs Reward

When we feel danger, the amygdala in the brain's limbic system, involved in the processing of intense emotions such as fear, gets activated.  It puts us in a fight or flight mode (stress response). It exhibits a bias toward detecting cues signalling potential threats. Imagine our fast reflexive reaction when a snake drops from a tree in front of us. In milliseconds, our brain automatically kicks off its primary appraisal of this stimuls for its inherent threat value. We are ready for flight, flight or freeze.

On the other hand, we unconsciously move towards experiences that we perceive as helpful for our survival or that generates a feeling of reward - not just food and money but also connection, acknowledgment, getting a good reputation, love, security, freedom etc.

Bad is stronger than good

Under threat we may experience stress. All that matters are the basics, and the most critical physiological and behavioural responses are initiated. Our body will turn off non-essential functions like reproduction, digestion or tissue repair, to focus on survival. Our lungs work overtime and our heart races to pump oxygen into the bloodstream. Our blood pressure goes up to deliver that energy to critical parts of our body so our muscles can respond instantly. 

Stress as a defensive response, has evolved as a means of adapting to immediate, life-threatening stressors.

Trouble is, while we no longer worry about tigers eating us for lunch, we continue to have the stress response and the amygdala fire up in the same way whenever we feel threatened - whether by a domineering boss, or receiving negative feedback, or by an ill-written email message, for example.

Today, we turn the stress response on for psychological reasons (worrying that someone does not like us, that something terrible might happen to us in the future) and not for real physiological reasons. We can arguably say that the stress response is more dangerous to us than the stressors.

Researchers have documented that the threat response often triggered in social situations, tends to be more intense and long lasting than the reward response. Data gathered through measures of brain activity - by using fMRI and electro-encephalo-graph (ECG) machines or by gauging hormanal secretions - suggests that the same neural responses that drive us toward food or away from predators are triggered by our perception of the way we are treated by other people [3].

The brain, after all, is our social organ

Brain studies have shown that we instinctively make sense of our social world like a reflex. In 1997, Professor Gordon L Shulman and his colleagues at Washington University carried out a study using a PET scanner: participants were asked to perform a routine cognitive task for a minute (like motor, memory and visual tasks), then rest for a minute, before starting the cognitive task again.  During rest times, they found a region to be highly active, a region known as the Default Mode Network (DMN).  This area is almost identical to that which fires up when most people think about themselves, other people, and their relation with others. Psychologists call this social cognition [4]. 

It would seem that the default setting in our brain is to instinctively make sense of ourselves and others, nudging our attention toward the social world.  

A low-cost reward system

The best experience of organizational change I have had was back 10 years ago in Australia, when a multinational telecommunications company I worked for embarked on a major rebranding, trying to differentiate itself in an industry of largely homogenous products. As a young Product Manager I remember being fully engaged because I felt that I was an integral part of the change from the start. I was consulted for my views and suggestions. Forums were organised for sharing ideas. The whole organization was informed regularly of progress by the CEO himself. I was given a role to play in it, all the while encouraged to provide on-going feedback to the program team. I owned part of the change and I was highly motivated to make it work. I felt included and valued. I felt an inner sense of achievement in knowing that part of its success was due to my team's efforts. This supports the idea that financial rewards as the key incentive for driving performance or engagement may be overstated. What about transparency, inclusivity, autonomy, fairness and equity?

Being treated with respect and as a valued member of the organization may activate reward systems in the brain that promote stronger learning of behaviours that predict more of these social rewards in the future. And obviously, providing social rewards is an extremely cost effective measure, requiring only a bit of time and thoughtfulness [5].

The conduit of influence

Understandably the role of a leader is significantly impacted by these perspectives. Even under normal circumstances employees' relationship with their leader is inherently threat-evoking. The overly vigilant and easily-triggered amygdala, which is more sensitive to threats than rewards, operates below consciousness. Speaking to one's supervisor or someone of higher status can often active a threat response. Perhaps there is always an inherent threat on peoples’ status in the way hierarchical organizations create and value job positions.   Perhaps it is also threatening to our sense of control and autonomy having to answer to a boss who eventually rate our performance against our peers.  

One study showed that people trust a stranger in the street more than their boss [6].

Successful leaders offset this inherent threat by increasing relatedness or connectedness which can come from identifying and focusing on shared goals, and also by being authentic and open so that people share positive human experiences [7].  

An article by Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy et al, suggest that when we judge others—especially our leaders—we look first at two characteristics: how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness) and how fearsome they are (their strength, agency, or competence). These two dimensions of social judgment account for more than 90% of the variance in the positive or negative impressions we form of people around us [8].

Most organizations are designed such that aspiring leaders strive to first prove their competence and demonstrate their excellence. When fear of the leader develops, chances are the leader (whether on purpose or not) has imposed her strength, competence and superiority before establishing trust. Yet fear can stunt creativity, openness and risk-taking.  On the other hand warmth, connectedness, empathy – these enable trust to develop, open up communication and make way for sharing of ideas.

So which one is better: to be warm or to be strong, to be trusted or to be admired?  As Cuddy asked in her HBR article: to be loved or to be feared? The best answer, the research tells us, is to be both, and in this order: connect first, then lead. When warmth is established first, you are paving the way for a deeper trusting relationship by demonstrating that you are listening, that you care.

"Once you establish your warmth, your strength is received as a welcome reassurance. Your leadership becomes not a threat but a gift." Cuddy adds.

Connectedness is the conduit of influence.

[1] Dinwoodie, D. Posmore, W, Quinn, L. and Rabin, R “Navigating Change: A Leader’s Role” CCL White Paper 2015 p2
[2] Gordon, E. (2000) "Integrative Neuroscience: Bringing together biological, psychological and clinical models of the human brain"
[3] Rock, D. (2009) "Managing with the Brain in Mind" Strategy +Business p3
[4] Lieberman, M (2013) Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, U.S. p9-25
[5] Lieberman, M, Eisenberg, N. (2008) "The pains and pleasures of social life: a social cognitive neuroscience approach" NL Journal p7
[6] Segalla, M. (2009, June 9). How Europeans do layoff. Posted on Harvard Business Review Website. http://appli7.hec.fr/ hrm/diversity/HBR_HeC_executive_Survey1.htm
[7] Rock, D. Cox, C. “SCARF in 2012: updating the social neuroscience of collaborating with others” NeuroLeadership Journal 2012 p6
[8] Cuddy et al, "Connect, Then Lead” HBR, 2013

To connect with Aurora Aritao for more details:

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Aurora Aritao

Leadership Coach and Consultant


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