Have you noticed how some people seem to have a strong adverse reaction to change?
No amount of inspiring vision statements, awareness campaigns, burning platform tactics seem to make an iota of difference!
I used to view this as par for the course in my work as a technology consultant… until my perceptions were challenged and my view of change was irrevocably altered by my work with a stakeholder named Sam (name anonymized).
Many years ago, I worked with Sam’s department on a major technology overhaul. Sam owned a business process that was critical to the function of his department. Over the years, through trial and error, he had built a series of complex spreadsheets to manually track this process. He had also built and managed mechanisms to validate variations in the process. He was rather proud of his process and spreadsheets, and rightfully so! Through Sam’s work, the department was able to guarantee successful runs with a very low margin of error and almost zero downtime.
When the organization attempted to integrate his process into an enterprise-grade software, Sam resisted.
Sam’s buy-in to the upgrade was critical. I was tasked with understanding the source of his resistance and identifying strategies to convince him.
People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.― Peter Senge
I tried all the standard change management tactics in my toolkit – I explained the “what’s in for me“, the benefits he would personally reap from the change. I highlighted the efficiency gains and the improved ease of tracking and accuracy of the data. The IT team actively involved Sam in designing the new interface. His manager assured him that he would be trained in the new technology.
All to no avail. Sam could not be convinced.
I realized that I had to dig deeper.
- If I were to cast aside my assumptions about his resistance, what might I discover
? Whatwas the thinking behind his reaction?
- What models might shed further light on his thinking?
- How could we respond to his emotional reaction to this change?
- What would convince him to buy-in?
That’s when I stumbled across two important models of understanding human behavior – the Iceberg model and the Triune brain.
In this post, we will peel back the curtain on behavior, unpacking what really happens in the brain during a change.
The Iceberg Model
One model or metaphor for understanding behavior that is used in systems thinking, organizational development, and psychotherapy, is the Iceberg model.
The Iceberg model argues that behaviors and patterns, which are visible to others arise from mental models and systemic structures that are often invisible. Human behavior is often driven by things that are hidden to others. Akin to moving an iceberg, it can be difficult if not impossible to change behavior without understanding and shifting what is below the surface.
Any attempt to change behavior needs to start at the hidden forces that drive the behavior. This includes addressing existing beliefs, values and most importantly, prevailing thoughts about the current reality.
Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.― William James
If behaviors are driven by thoughts, what kind of thinking results in resistance? Can we anticipate and prepare for resistance? How can we transform thinking to override resistance?
There is a lot that we can learn about thinking and behavior change when we examine the human brain.
The Triune Brain
In the 1960s, an American neuroscientist named Paul MacLean developed the triune model of the human brain. This model organizes the human brain into a hierarchy of three distinct regions based on an evolutionary view of brain development:
- the rational brain or neomammalian brain, which is responsible for higher-order thinking,
- the limbic or paleomammalian brain, which is responsible for our feelings, connection with others, memory and habits,
- the instinctual or reptilian brain, which is responsible for involuntary functions such as eating, sleeping, breathing.
While recent studies have proven that there is no distinct division of the brain as described by MacLean’s model, it nevertheless provides a clear view of mental activity, which is extremely beneficial when addressing the needs of stakeholders.
Let’s take a closer look at the three regions.
Our reptilian brain which is the oldest of all three includes the main structures found in a reptile’s brain – the brainstem and the cerebellum. The reptilian brain controls vital survival mechanisms and is therefore reliable but inflexible and compulsive.
The limbic brain consists of the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. It is linked to emotions, caring, and connection. It is the seat of value judgments and unconscious biases and exerts a strong influence on our social behavior.
The rational brain consists of the neocortex with its two large cerebral hemispheres. The neocortex deals in higher functions such as sensory perception, motor commands, spatial reasoning, abstract thought,
The Prefrontal cortex (aka the PFC, which we will refer to time and again) is the part of the neocortex at the very front of the brain. It is involved in executive functions such as planning, goal-setting, and actions. The neocortex is the result of our ancestral brain’s adaptation to the growing need for tribal cooperation and social harmony. The neocortex is eminently flexible and has almost infinite learning abilities. But, the PFC is also persnickety. It needs things to be just right, which is why it has been dubbed “the Goldilocks of the brain“.
The reptilian and limbic brain are the oldest parts of our brain and are therefore the most optimized. They consume less energy and operate faster. When a tiger was chasing our ancestors down the savannah, it was imperative to get them to safety. So, the limbic brain acted fast triggering the flight response.
Though we have been stuffing them into classrooms and cubicles for decades, our brains actually were built to survive in jungles and grasslands. We have not outgrown this.― John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
The rational brain, on the other hand, is relatively young. It’s also the most sophisticated part of our brain dealing with complex functions. It consumes more energy and typically operates slower. When our ancestors were deciding where to settle their tribe, they would have made a calculated decision based on several factors. A complex decision like that required much deliberation by the rational brain.
The days of tigers roaming the savannah may be long past, but the human brain is still mainly concerned with keeping us alive. Our brain isn’t wired for change, it’s wired for survival.
Changing a habit or embedding a new behavior takes focused attention and intentional action. It requires recognizing new patterns and responding differently rather than reacting out of instinct or habit.
The biggest takeaway from the triune model is this – because of the tremendous effort and energy it takes to disrupt hardwired patterns, change can feel quite literally painful. It’s no wonder people resist change!
There’s a constant seesaw between the limbic brain and the rational brain. When we are under pressure, tired or distracted, our rational brain struggles to stay focused. It is easy to let the limbic brain take over and relapse into entrenched ways of doing things or succumb to unconscious biases.
The only way to build readiness and resiliency for change is by leveraging insights from the triune brain.
How do we do that?
To begin with, in our work with stakeholders such as Sam, we need to defuse the limbic threat. Before we attempt to connect with the rational brain, we need to allay the fears and threats faced by the limbic brain. Secondly, all change practitioners need to develop a basic understanding of the brain’s response to change,
Let’s return to Sam and his organization’s change…
The two models described above helped me gain a deeper understanding of human behavior. I cast aside my assumptions and got curious about Sam’s perspective of the change.
Through active listening, I uncovered the true depth of Sam’s work. He was doing more than just managing a process and complex spreadsheets. He held the key to a complex set of interactions that were integral to the success of the business. No software or automation could replace that!
Turned out, Sam was not concerned about the new interfaces. His limbic threat was of a social kind. He had grave concerns about the broader impact of the program, especially on the downstream stakeholders.
Once Sam was assured that he wouldn’t be relinquishing control of the most critical aspects of his process and that other downstream stakeholders would also be involved in the program, he was willing to buy in.
He learned more about the new software and came to trust the functionality. He readily bought into the larger scale organizational change. He even found ways to expand his participation, leveraging his expertise to guide the team in defining future state processes.
My work with Sam transformed the way I viewed change and human behavior. It launched me down the path of immersing myself in change management. It connected me with my first love of science and inspired me to a life long pursuit of brain-based change.
Man’s mind once stretched by a new― Oliver Wendell Holmes
idea,never regains its original dimension.
In future posts, we will take a closer look at the brain’s threat response and a simple yet powerful model for influencing people.
What have you learned about the brain and change? How does this inform the way you now view stakeholder response to change? What will you do differently in your interactions with stakeholders?
Photo Credit: Pixabay