An increasing number of books and articles over the last two years have provided great insight into the neurological underpinnings of the human brain. You don’t just see these articles showing up esoteric science journals either. Special issues of Time, Newsweek, and other popular magazines have recently taken on the previously un-sexy topics such as neurotransmitters, the amygdala, and our motor cortex. There’s been some really interesting research and writings making connections between neuroscience and organizations. We thought we’d advance that dialogue by looking at the implications of this latest thinking for large scale change methodologies like Real Time Strategic Change.
David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz’s article ‘The Neuroscience of Leadership’ published in Strategy and Business, a range of articles in Scientific American Mind on ‘Social Intelligence’, all point to the same thing. The emergence of a strong body of research on the physical changes in our brains that create the necessary hardwiring required for sustainable behavioural change. What gets interesting about all this is that much of the research strongly supports the methodology of large scale interactive change. Originally seen as an emerging ‘movement’ (including the recent Nexus for Change conference), large scale interactive change has relied on intuitive knowledge, experience and anecdotal evidence to support the tools, methodologies and techniques employed. Now at last we can refer back to some empirical, rich research to fine-tune and adjust our toolkits to ensure that our work is more effective and sustainable.
So what are some of the most important contributions of this body of research? David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz claim, ‘Managers who understand the recent breakthroughs in cognitive science can lead and influence mindful change: organisational transformation that takes into account the physiological nature of the brain and the way it predisposes people to resist some forms of leadership and accept others.’ Their research flies in the face of some of the most commonly accepted beliefs of behavioural change held by managers, namely that reward, punishment and empathetic persuasion are the primary tools for guiding desired behaviour.
Their research concludes that for the brain to develop new neurological connections to hardwire change people’s attention has to be focused on the organisational issues that underpin change as well as on the specific behavioural changes desired. It goes on to show how critical it is for people (and their brains) to be intimately connected to complex issues thought by some to be best reserved for those at the top of the hierarchy. Broad-based topics such as stimulating and creating insight about an organisation, its strategy and the linkages to the everyday work of people are all essential to sustain change. Their research confirms the requirement of ongoing ‘attention density’ on crucial issues to ensure permanent hardwiring of desired behavioural change.
So, what’s new you may argue, haven’t we always known that these are important pre-requisites for change?
Well, intuitively as change practitioners we’ve always held that the principle of developing insight through engagement is a critical element of sustainable change. Now we’re able to explain to leaders why the so called ‘soft’ methodology we employ achieves the ‘hard’ wiring required for change. We’re able to move from the realm of the intuitive and the anecdotal to supplement our guidance with a clear, rational explanation. We’re able to explain why and how engagement works to develop insight and how ongoing, focused attention sustains change.
We’re able to show how Rock and Schwartz’s assertion that ‘Large scale behaviour change requires a large-scale change in mental maps. This in turn requires some kind of event or experience that allows people to provoke themselves, in effect, to change their attitudes and expectations more quickly and dramatically than they normally would.’ These are the types of events and experiences that need to be translated into concrete programmes of leadership and employee engagement.
Daniel Goleman’s book ‘Social Intelligence’ builds on the neurological research and asserts that ‘Neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person.’ What Goleman succeeds eloquently in doing is moving beyond the intra-personal into the interpersonal aspects of change. In so doing he moves beyond the original work of Emotional Intelligence, from ‘one person psychology …. to a two-person psychology: what transpires as we connect’
Social Intelligence provides us with a far reaching exploration of why we connect with others — or don’t. It engagingly explains the role of our neurons in influencing consciously and unconsciously the way we relate to others and develops our insight into the impact of our behaviour on others. Goleman asserts ‘Businesses are on the front lines of applying social intelligence. As people work longer and longer hours, businesses loom as their substitute family, village and social network – yet most of us can be tossed out at the will of management. That inherent ambivalence means that in more and more organisations, hope and fear run rampant.’
In structuring the organisational events and experiences that engage the collective wisdom of the people in our client organisational systems, understanding the key aspects of social intelligence is critical in structuring an effective design. What are the key behaviours, images, or stories that will fire the mirror neurons to focus attention rapidly and sustainably? How do we balance the key polarities of emotional and rational connection to develop the required insights? How do we address people’s hopes and fears about change and about committing to a new world of work?
Whilst Rock, Schwartz, Goleman and others have done much to advance our understanding of the reality of mindful behavioural change they also raise an important question. Does our understanding of neuroplasticity provide us with the tools to manipulate and control? What are the ethical boundaries between goal-directed organisational change and the subversion of free will?
What do you think? Are we moving towards an era of more informed manipulation of employees or of informing people’s discretion to act wisely? Let us know your thoughts. We’ll talk more about this important topic in future postings.