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January 16, 2023

WHAT NEUROSCIENCE CAN TEACH US ABOUT ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE

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Marisa Kopie

The global moment of change, and crisis, have accelerated the need for quick adaptation in the personal lives and business world.

The future of work demands new skills like constant learning (see the last WEF ,Future of Job’s report“ for 2025), a higher level of employee autonomy, efficient collaboration, and more conscious and empathetic leadership.

But, how do we get there?

Change is not easy because it forces us out of our comfort zone. We can change in a reactive way, responding to dramas, illnesses, and external situations, or in an active way by designing the type of change we want to achieve.

Unfortunately, most of us are like firefighters, constantly putting out fires and reacting to problems, distractions, and unforeseen events in our environment.

In this article, I will talk about active change, from the inside out, and how applied neuroscience can help us to achieve it.

In this context, the same principles are applicable at the individual level as at the collective level since organizational culture is made up of the individuals that compose it. Why is this important to know? Because the current and upcoming changes require a collectively aligned effort.

Understanding how we operate neurologically and physiologically in the face of change processes can help organizations create cultures of change aligned with the vision and purpose of the organization. At the individual level, you can think of neuroscience like an “instruction manual” for our internal technology.

THREAT AND REWARD

The organizing principle of the brain says, “maximize reward and minimize threat” (E. Gordon, 1998). We avoid situations that may pose a danger and recreate or seek rewarding situations. This is true independently of whether the threat is physical or social (Liebermann and Eisenberger, 2008).

It is this principle that governs our motivation, engagement, and attention.

In a state of survival or stress, a part of our nervous system is activated that prepares us to attack, flee or hide. The side effect is that we become selfish and competitive (remember, we are trying to survive, even if not from a predator but perhaps from a boss or a difficult client). We can only change in a reactive way.

There is a direct correlation between emotions derived from high stress and cognitive performance, especially in the area responsible for decision-making, creativity, emotional regulation, planning, and abstract thinking. Under stress, we get mentally blocked. How many times did you react to a person, who perhaps made you angry and later regretted what you did?

In other words: we cannot collaborate, be creative or be the engine of change when we feel threatened. It is necessary to self-regulate emotionally to have high cognitive performance.

Here is the paradox: we need to create change, but we are immersed in high levels of stress, multiple challenges, and distracting factors that do not allow us to change actively.

The first step of change is, therefore, to become aware of our individual threats (overwork, digital distractions, a difficult colleague, and our own thoughts). The second is to learn our emotions and regulate them in the moment or after the situation to maintain optimal mental performance.

THE NEW LEADERSHIP DEMANDS:

1) CREATE PSYCHOLOGICALLY SAFE ENVIRONMENTS

According to the “Aristotle Project” (Google), psychological safety is the most important element that makes the team effective. A psychologically safe environment is one where individuals feel included and safe enough to express new ideas, even if they are risky. These environments create cohesive teams and practice constructive dissent. A manager who knows how to create psychological safety has the tools to move his team from a state of threat to a state of creativity more quickly in the face of external challenges, making them more capable of adapting and changing effectively.

In psychologically safe teams, there is mutual trust between the management and the team members. Trust is the basis for collaboration, and it is the leaders who must take the first step by incorporating inclusive behaviors themselves, taking risks, and asking for help from the experts in their team. We also often send mixed messages. For example, we say something, but we do something else These subtle, inconsistent messages are perceived by our team and cause mistrust.

2) ROLE MODELLING AND EMPATHY

Our brain is predominantly social. In fact, there is a circuit called “default mode”. This area is located in the mid and lateral cortex, areas responsible for self- reflection and thinking about others.

This means, our brain is designed to be empathic, to understand others, and to imitate behaviors (in fact, if you observe a baby, it is already able to identify emotions in others and imitate its parent’s gestures).

A management that role models the behaviors it wants to create in its employees, that demonstrates a coherence between thinking, communication, and behavior, is much more likely to be followed by its employees.

3) IGNITE INTRINSIC MOTIVATION

Most organizations use external motivators to generate reward or punishment motivation, if you do not finish the project until tomorrow, you will not get a promotion! (punishment) or if your project is accepted, you will get a salary increase! (reward). However, these are not the most effective forms of motivation because they disappear as soon as the motivator disappears.

Tomorrow’s successful companies need employees who can self-motivate. It’s the kind of intrinsic motivation that makes people go the extra mile, that makes them absorbed in their projects and lose track of time and their environment.

How to create that kind of motivation? Management and leaders can contribute to this type of motivation by creating a positive environment, communicating the purpose of the work and the importance that its achievement has for the company, and providing greater employee autonomy on how they do their work.

THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION

Learning is natural to human beings. The human neocortex, and especially the frontal lobe, is much more developed in humans than in other species allowing us to formulate questions such as “What if…? “What would it be like if…? However, the ability to learn is a function of the level of stress we perceive. High levels of stress hinder learning and contextual memory.

An organization that actively responds to change is a learning organization and this implies that all its components (employees, management) are also learning.

Active change is only possible from an emotionally composed state.

Psychologically safe cultures will have a competitive advantage creating an engaged, collaborative, and innovative workforce and, ultimately, a happier culture.

Maria Luisa Engels