Johnnie Moore

Brain science and change

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Shawn at Anecdote points to this article by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz: The Neuroscience of Leadership. It attempts to relate findings in brain research to the challenge of organisational change. I found it thought-provoking – here are some reflections on it.

The authors suggest change is pain. Processing new stuff uses up our limited supplies of working memory and we get tired quickly. Plus there’s a tendency for the brain to activate its fear circuitry when it picks up difference in the environment.

Try to change another person’s behavior even with the best possible justification, and he or she will experience discomfort. The brain sends out powerful messages that something is wrong, and the capacity for higher thought is decreased. Change itself thus amplifies stress and discomfort; and managers (who may not, from their position in the hierarchy, perceive the same events in the same way that subordinates perceive them) tend to underestimate the challenges inherent in implementation.

Well, this makes sense, especially if forgive them the rhetorical exagerration of the headline “change is pain”. I would add that I’d be wary of assuming that organisational change is just a process where one person commands and the other obeys. I see it as a more two way process in which the pain, if there is some, might be more distributed. There’s some fear circutry at work for the boss too.

Rock and Schwartz argue that behaviourism doesn’t work, challenging carrot-and-stick approaches, and I easily agree with that.

They next suggest humanism is overrated, and I notice my anxiety levels rise a little. I find this section a bit confused. It starts off talking about the view that empathy is the key to change but then asserts that this might not always get you the change you want. For me, not always getting what you want is life. I resist the idea that organisational change is about getting obedience. Those of us, including me, who think empathy is important would suggest that this kind of instrumentalism undermines empathy. I agree with the authors when they argue that people can spot this kind of manipulation; but I don’t think this invalidates an empathy-based approach.

I quite liked the bit where the authors critique the socratic questioning approach to coaching; I increasingly find myself irritated by this style of working as it easily becomes patronising, reflecting an idea that in a relationship only person has to change and the other, expert, simply has to point the way.

I got more engaged when the authors presented brain-based evidence to support the notion that change is more likely to happen when we have our own insights. This fits with the commonsense idea that people are fonder of ideas when they think they’ve had them themselves. Here’s how they argue it:

For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions. This is true for several reasons. First, people will experience the adrenaline-like rush of insight only if they go through the process of making connections themselves. The moment of insight is well known to be a positive and energizing experience. This rush of energy may be central to facilitating change: It helps fight against the internal (and external) forces trying to keep change from occurring, including the fear response of the amygdala.

Second, neural networks are influenced moment to moment by genes, experiences, and varying patterns of attention. Although all people have some broad functions in common, in truth everyone has a unique brain architecture. Human brains are so complex and individual that there is little point in trying to work out how another person ought to reorganize his or her thinking. It is far more effective and efficient to help others come to their own insights. Accomplishing this feat requires self-observation. Adam Smith, in his 1759 masterpiece The Theory of Moral Sentiments, referred to this as being the spectators of our own behaviour.

I also liked their argument that changes are more likely to happen if we don’t rely on a “one day wonder” workshop and instead go for smaller but repeated interventions that reinforce new patterns.

UPDATE Ed Batista likes the article but has a similar issue with the take on humanism. He says

I’d be less critical if Rock and Schwartz had said, “Humanism is difficult to execute, can’t be faked, and sometimes devolves into thinly veiled and patronizing efforts at persuasion,” or, more concisely, “Pseudo-humanism is overrated.”

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