Are your people ready to change?

If you’re in a bad situation, don’t worry it’ll change.  If you’re in a good situation, don’t worry it’ll change.  ~  John A. Simone, Sr.  

At a time when most businesses are seeking ways to emerge from the effects of the recession, and get themselves back on the road to economic growth, one inevitable question their leaders will all face will be, “What things are going to have to change around here to start us moving again?”  

  • Will the strategy and tactics they have been deploying during the crunch be the same ones they need to drive growth?  
  • How do they shift mindsets on their management teams from ‘cost avoidance’ to ‘growth and profit’? 
  • Do they need different types of people in their company to take them in a different direction?
  • Will their own leadership style need to be different as they move forward?
  • Are they even the right leader to take the company forward and be successful?

Some of these questions can be extremely daunting, and will challenge even the most competent leaders. However, much will depend on how the workforce has been led during the period of recession. 

Have people been continuously aware that this day was coming, or will it come as a surprise to them  that they are now expected to do things differently, think differently, perhaps adopt new practices.  Remember, even unpleasant circumstances become comfortable after a while, and people will resist moving away from the ‘way things are’ even if they are promised a better future.polar-bear-ice

It’s not enough to simply promise things will get better and hope they will change.  One major reason for this, we now know, is because of the way our brains are organised. Regular patterns of thinking and behaviour become ‘wired’ at the neural level. It is certainly not a trivial matter of expecting people to one day waken up and operate as if they had a different wiring pattern. Not even after the most rousing and stirring ‘all-hands’ kick-off event !!  Our brains need to have new connections created (and old connections disused and atrophied) over a period of time in order for new patterns of thinking and behaviour to take root. New visions, positive futures, different expectations, alternate rewards, all help generate these new connections, and ultimately, different behaviours.

That’s why the best leaders Continue reading

The Power of Silence

“Silence is true wisdom’s best reply.” Euripides

How comfortable are you with periods of silence during conversations?  Do you feel uncomfortable? Are you compelled to fill the void and keep the cascade of words flowing?

I was prompted to think about this by a short article I read recently by Angela Dunbar, in which she claims that almost all coaching and talking therapies are designed to work by encouraging the client to open up and talk about what’s happening for them, to speak their thinking aloud and verbalize any insights they may be having.  All of this is based on the (not unreasonable) assumption that, by expressing out loud what’s going on in your mind, problems will be unpicked and solutions found.

The article goes on to point to research in the field of cognitive psychology (see paper by Schooler, Ohlsson, and Brooks) that suggests that the act of verbalizing thoughts actually prevents insights arising. This may be because the brain has limited resources, and if they are concentrated on the conscious activity of talking, there is reduced capacity for the non-conscious activities that are necessary for insight to occur.  The research evidence suggests that insight involves processes that are distinct from language, and which benefit from not being distracted by speech.

Continue reading

Overcoming the Brain’s Negativity Bias

We didn’t get where we are today by being positive you know. Oh no.  Survival is a tough, uncompromising business.  Our ancient ancestors needed the negativity bias that is neurally wired into our brains in order to be successful. And successful they were; the fact you are reading this today being proof of that. The paradox is that this very successful survival mechanism – ‘the negativity bias’ – can often get in the way of people being able to experience life positively.

Let’s look at a simple model of how the human brain has been built up over tens of thousands of years of evolution.  (see also Rick Hanson’s article on this subject).          We can think of it as being composed of three (evolutionary) layers:

1. The Lizard Brain            This is the ‘old brain’. It shares many characteristics with the reptilian brain. It tends to fire in a reactive way. It is alert to dangers.  One classic and well-know example that is often quoted is the ’emotional hijack’ – when our emotions take over and we can actually feel like we are at the mercy of another brain. In some ways that is true.  When the ‘red mist’ falls across our eyes in moments of fury or fear, the lizard has taken over the controls.

2.   The Mammalian Brain      The middle layer of the brain, which we share with other mammals (in an evolutionary sense) is much more concerned with seeking rewards. More sophisticated processing takes place at this layer than in the ‘old brain’, although in neuroplastic terms it is still relatively ‘rigid’.

3.  The Primate/Human Brain    The most recently developed, upper layer of the brains of primates and humans is concerned primarily with attachments and relationships.   We see this most clearly in the use of communication, language, social network development and extracted thought concerned with abstract concepts such as philosophy, religion and science.

Some of the most recent advances in the science of neuroplasticity have started to reveal amazing abilities for the brain to change and alter shape (by creating new connections and thickening existing connections) as a result of experiences and repeated use.  While neuroplasticity can, and does, take place at all three levels of the brain, it does appear that it is much more difficult to affect changes in the lizard brain than in the primate/human level (or neocortical region) of the brain.  For a superb in-depth treatment of this area, I refer you to Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain.

Why is this important?  Well, it means that, no matter how sophisticated and developed our thinking becomes, no matter how much we believe we have our emotions under control, there is, deep within our 21st Century selves, a part of us which is operating on one simple rule, which is basically “Get Lunch – Don’t Be Lunch!”

Now, even in the wild, most anxious episodes resolve fairly quickly.  The highly attuned Continue reading

The Upstairs & Downstairs Brain

Advances in neurosciences continue to inform our understanding of what makes us human, and perhaps even more importantly, how we interact with each other. In this week’s post I recommend two excellent speakers and experts in the field of neuroscience to you, Dan Siegel and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

We have passed through many periods of popular assumptions about the brain and the mind, including the tabula rasa (blank slate) theory that humans are born void of knowledge and acquire ideas and wisdom over time from the world in which they operate. And, until a few years ago, we believed that the wiring of our brains was pretty much determined and complete within the first few years of life. Advances in techniques for studying the brain, in recent years, have shown that development continues well into adolescence (and beyond), particularly in the pre-frontal cortex.  During this period of development an especially important process takes place. Synaptic pruning. Underused synapses and connections in the brain are pruned, just like weak or dead branches on a rose bush are cut away.  This is a vital phase of development of the brain, during which connections that are used are strengthened and those which are not are lost. Neurons that fire together wire together. (See also previous post on this subject: The “white stuff”, and what it means for your brain – March 2012) Continue reading

The “white stuff”, and what it means for your brain

I love this snow metaphor of how our ‘plastic’ brain works….(attributed to Pascual-Leone).

Neuroplasticity is like fresh pliable snow on a hill. When you go down the hill on a sled for the first time, you can be flexible in that you can choose whatever route to take. You can take different paths on your second and subsequent trips too if you like. However, if you choose to take the same path each time, a deeper and more permanent track will develop, and soon it will be difficult to sled down the hill without being ‘stuck in the rut’ you have created. Your route will now be quite rigid, and it will take some effort to break out of the rut and establish new pathways.

In a similar way, neural circuits, once established, tend to become self-sustaining. As Doidge puts it in his book “The Brain that Changes Itself”, neuroplasticity works both ways, it gives rise not only to mental flexibility and growth, but can also lead to mental rigidity and stagnation.    Continue reading

“Coaching is like Brain Surgery”. So, how sharp is your scalpel?

For a long time the received wisdom within the world of brain science has been about structure, fixed neural connections, localization of function and other related concepts. This view was largely influenced by some of the pioneering work of people like Hubel & Wiesel, Nobel Prize winners in 1981.

The idea that the brain may actually be ‘plastic’ in some way, that it may continue to make new connections, and that regions of the brain may actually be able to adapt and become responsible for function that it was not originally ‘mapped’ for, was dismissed until very recently.

The great news is Continue reading