Change is constantly happening to us, sometimes small and incremental, sometimes huge. Sometimes we chose it, sometimes it just happened to us. However, we view change initially not just from a logical lens but from our emotions and the mixture of positives and negatives we feel about change.

It is in our human nature to change as that is part of evolution, so it is well-within our grasp; however, as individuals, we have different tolerance levels of the pace and scale of change.

When we are in a leadership position, responsible for others as well as ourselves, it can be a challenge as not only are we helping others through change but we are adjusting to it as well ourselves.

It is normal to expect ourselves to be super-human, to be able to digest, respond and react positively to change outwardly projecting this when we are in a leadership role. This can influence our choice in how we behave towards others but it can also create a disconnect, as it can appear to lack empathy and compassion. As we explored in this article about super hero versus human leaders, it can be helpful to understand how what is going on for us is impacting our leadership style.

What is happening in our brain chemistry in change?

When we look at the neuroscience, change does initially trigger a threat response while we work out what it is, as part of our survival mechanism, is it going to kill us or help us? Our brains love patterns as they give us certainty, and these are, therefore, predictable. Uncertainty brings unpredictability and an unknown around whether it is a threat. So anything new has a moment of ‘threat’ while we are deciding what we think or feel about it.

In this initial threat stage, because we are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol and our reward hormone dopamine is supressed, we have a physiological response whilst our body gets ready for ‘fight or flight’ i.e. our hearts pump faster and blood flows to our muscles rather than our brain. At this time, it is, therefore harder for us to think straight as energy that usually goes to our pre-frontal cortex, our executive function for all things logical and intelligent, is going elsewhere in our body.

Our pre-frontal cortex is a network of neurons that guide our attention, thinking, planning, actions and emotions.

Therefore we are distracted, anxious, think less clearly, we have less emotional control, see colleagues as hostile, have reduced memory, less ability to think creatively and ultimately, poorer performance. This is a normal and very human reaction, albeit not particularly pleasant. The key is to see it happening in yourself and, of course, in others.

When you’re in a leadership position, depending on your levels of emotional control will influence how much of this is seen. But no doubt it will be seeping into your behaviours…

  • You may be questioning and mistrusting your peers in your leadership team more.
  • It may also be explicit in becoming protective of your team and competing with others.
  • You may be slow or even resist the implementation of new ideas, processes or procedures.
  • You may also struggle to champion the changes with your own team, who sense you are not fully on board.
  • You may be vociferous with your views or a silent objector; either way, you are struggling to adjust personally, so how can you begin to help others?

Why does too much or too little stress matter in change?

However, this is not about certainty and predictability being exactly what we want at all times. As human beings, we do want and need some stimulation, and smaller-scale changes or unknowns are often seen as a novelty by the brain and an opportunity that might improve our evolution.

This is well documented by Yerkes and Dobson, a model which has subsequently been further researched and evidenced in recent years, which summarised the need for some level of stimulation to help us take action and find optimal performance.

Too little, and we become bored and procrastinate; we can’t get ourselves started in the day and do the tasks we need to.

Too much, and we feel overwhelmed and frazzled, unable to think straight because of all the information, tasks and deadlines coming at us.

 

 

What we also know from neuroscience is that it’s about finding balance to keep our pre-frontal cortex, responsible for executive function, working well.

If we are in a role responsible for leading others, it is super important to recognise where you might be on this stress curve. Let’s be realistic, because of workload, demands and pressures, most leaders are operating in the top half of the curve, sometimes in the optimal zone and sometimes in the impaired zone due to high levels of stress.

Just recognising what is going on for yourself is key. Secondly, paying attention to what is going on for each individual in the people you lead is important.

The reason it is important is because with insight and awareness we can then create motivation to take action for change.

Let’s remind ourselves here that we know that the brain has neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to restructure and carry on learning if we choose to apply ourselves. As we learn, the brain makes new neural connections and strengthens existing neural connections so that we can change and improve. Therefore, no matter who we are or how old we are, we can change.

But the first step to help us respond to change is self-awareness

When we are in that environment of change, we need to help people develop self-awareness of what is going on emotionally for ourselves and others. This helps us develop an understanding of how that is them impacting our behaviour and gives us the stepping stone into adjusting to change.

Self-awareness can come from self-reflection questions and exercises, gathering 360 feedback from others, and from mentoring or coaching. From self-awareness we can then identify our capability, our motivation and the opportunities to respond to external changes with our own internal changes. As a leader, there are many resources to draw upon to raise self-awareness and to encourage the people you lead to develop strong self-awareness of their emotions and behaviours.

At Co-Creation Group, we use positive psychology approaches and our change management model FHOCAL™ to help people explore and identify how to change.

 

A Self-awareness Exercise using the FHOCAL™ approach

Next time you feel the pressure of changes and feel blocked by the emotions and reactions you are experiencing to the changes, ask yourself:

1) What is going in your inner world?

  • How do the changes affect your purpose in life and/or work?
  • How do you feel and what are you experiencing?
  • What is likely to look different for you in the short-term?
  • Who could support you and you could connect with?
  • What strengths do you have that will help you adapt to what is happening?
  • How could you reframe your view and see the opportunities for you?

2) What is going on in your outer world?

  • How do the changes fit to the overall purpose and vision of what you do in life or work?
  • What is going on for everyone else, what do they feel and how does that affect you?
  • What will look different for everyone else?
  • Where could you come together with others and collaborate?
  • What processes or rules need to be thrown out and replaced with a more flexible if/then approach?
  • What knowledge and tools could be found or learned to make the most of the situation

Building Energy for Action

From self-awareness, you can build the energy and motivation for action. You can identify what you need to aim towards and start to take steps to get there, with the support of others, be that family, friends, your peers, a manager, a mentor or a coach.

As leaders, with our teams give space for the emotions to be shared, explored, understood, processed and use these to create an energy to change. Use a coaching style and a growth mindset approach to help your teams see the opportunities and what good can come of change, how it fits with the overall vision and their role in that.

 

Contact the Co-Creation team and discover how our team of consultants can help your company embrace the pace of change in your organisation with the introduction of our change management model.

FURTHER READING:

Scarlett, H. (2019). Neuroscience for Organisational Change: An evidence-based practical guide to managing change. Kogan Page