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Who'd have thought biology was important for business

Whether you’re a sole trader or the CEO of a multinational organisation, we are all constantly seeking ways to do what we do better.

To turn your ideas into reality, to achieve your goals, you need to ask the people who do the work, to work in different ways… do more with less, be more customer focused, be better leaders, reduce costs, find efficiencies, work with new technology, collaborate more, be willing to experiment and tolerate failure, be more innovative and creative, be more risk aware, and so on.

What you are really doing when you ask people to work differently, is asking them to change.

Emerging research in cognitive, behavioural and social neuroscience is developing a deeper understanding of the neural bases of the complex relationship between mind and behaviour. This research also provides us with important insights into what happens when we ask people to change, and how we can use this knowledge to enable smoother transitions – in life and work.

What goes on inside us when we are faced with change?

As human beings, we are primarily directed towards ensuring our survival. To do this, we have two primal goals – to avoid threat and maximise rewards. But we are 4-6 times more attuned to threats than rewards. Which makes sense in the context of surviving – it’s more important to avoid the bear than to harvest berries.

When we perceive a threat, our stress response kicks in - our bodies prepare for fight or flight. This biological response includes raised cortisol (stress hormone) and testosterone (strength hormone) levels, increased heart rate and blood pressure, our digestive system shuts down; and oxygen is sent to our limbs and away from the brain. These responses are normal, healthy and necessary for our survival – if our survival is at risk.

The challenge is that the response is the same, whether the perceived threat is real or not.

In a work setting, there are many events that we may perceive as threats that stimulate our stress response. When this happens, we become irritable, angry, and emotional. We don’t think clearly and it negatively affects our decision-making abilities. We react on impulse and emotion, rather than act on logical and rational thoughts. The effect is compounded the more frequently we are triggered into a stress response without necessary time to relax and reset.

In business we want people to be performing at their physical and mental best. This happens when we are in a relaxed physiological state – low heart rate and blood pressure, a well-performing digestive system, and oxygen in the brain, with feel-good hormones flowing freely. That is, when we aren’t feeling threatened, stressed or anxious.

How is our primal stress response relevant to leading organisational change?

Our physical response to threat and reward can be thought of as moving towards (opportunities) and moving away (threats) from something. Asking people to change is asking people to move away from something old and move towards something new. But how do they feel about that? Are we asking people to let go of something that they believe is vitally important to them or their identity? How do they feel about what we are asking them to move towards? Are they fearful, uncertain or concerned? Are they motivated because they believe the future is brighter over there?

Put simply, is the change we are asking people to make being perceived as a threat or an opportunity?

In this way, the key to making a change, either in work or life, lies in understanding what is most important to us and how this will be impacted in the future. What is potentially a threat, and what is potentially rewarding? What will I want to move away from and what will I want to move towards?

Asking people to change is about much more than implementing a suite of tools and activities.

To create change that is lasting and sustainable, it is imperative to understand the natural human responses to what you are asking your people to do differently.

Pause for a moment to reflect on a change you are trying to impact in your organisation:

  • What do people need to do differently?

  • What are you asking them to move away from and move towards?

  • How do they feel about that?

  • What response might you be triggering?

  • What could you do differently to be more effective in how you are asking people to change?

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