Don’t Just Change Your Mind
One of the first words most children learn is ‘no’. And, as humans, we crave independence despite being very social creatures. Autonomy is important to us, and so the ability to say no and pushback is essential to ensure we feel we have a say on what matters in our lives. It is not something we grow out of. Instead, we learn how to set some boundaries and to not be quite as outspoken as a stubborn three-year-old would be when presented with a situation we don’t agree with. We instead learn to adapt and work around situations finding alternatives to a straight-out cry of ‘no’.
Our brains are naturally hesitant to change – it’s easier for the brain to move towards the negative side when presented with announcements that mean things are going to change, than react positively. Change, to our brains, can represent uncertainty, and so our instinct kicks in to keep us safe, inevitably resulting in a potential fight or flight response. This is when we want to say no, we want to prevent the change, and keep the routines we are used to.
When this happens, our capacity for rational thought can be diminished, even if the change we are presented with is logical or even positive for us.
It’s not really any different in the workplace. However, when change is carried out at a large scale in an organisation, it has the potential to lead to uncertainty amongst employees who then collectively experience something called ‘cognitive vulnerability’, whereby the anxiousness felt by a few employees who are struggling with the change can spread and affect others who may have reacted less negatively to the change in the first place. Dr Helena Boschi writes more about this in detail in her book ‘Why We Do What We Do’.
Of course, we know that often, uncertainty and change go hand in hand, providing the perfect environment for push-back and anxious behaviour from employees. This can make managing change, and the resistance by employees who are experiencing cognitive vulnerability a bit more challenging to react to.
When we understand how the brain reacts to change at an individual level, we then understand that we need to minimize the potential ‘threat’ aspect of change for people in the first instance to help their brains come to terms with the change in a more positive, and less anxious way, and not just expect them to ‘change their minds’.
Why engagement matters: Minimising the threat
Giving employees a sense of purpose and direction can be a good starting point for softening the threat of change. Starting with the ‘why’ and not focusing too much on the ‘what’ helps our brains to process the rationale behind the change a bit more. It helps to minimise the uncertainty and cognitive vulnerability. This is also why providing enough information, regularly, is critical during times of change.
Engaging with purpose, and using positive, inclusive language in your communications will also help to minimise the threat as our brains don’t associate positive language with threats. Using creativity, such as friendly mascots and images with a touch of humour and can also help lessen the threatening nature of the change.
These are impactful methods of engaging employees and should be continuously used throughout the change as they will ultimately make managing the change a little easier. However, we should also consider that psychologically, the most effective way for our brains to come to terms with change is to want to change ourselves, not because we are being told to. In an organisational setting, this equates to employees wanting and proactively changing their ways of working, communication, and behaviour to align with the organisation’s plans for change.
Persuading the brain to change
To support this, it is worth thinking about the six factors of persuasion laid out by Robert Cialdini. These include reciprocity, social proof, consistency, liking, authority, and scarcity.
Reciprocity in the context of change can be understood in terms of ‘I’ll scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine’. It’s a favour mechanism that is based on reward. If there is way to work this into your change journey, it can be beneficial in persuading employees to engage more with the change and the rationale behind the change if there is a reward of some kind, for instance a direct benefit for themselves or their teams.
Social proof can be thought of as the ‘sheep mentality’. So, if you see your colleagues getting on board with a change, you are more likely to do so yourself as you feel more certain and less vulnerable. Social proof in practice requires time and effort up front in upskilling and onboarding your change champions to be advocates of the change across the organization.
Consistency is critical to alleviating some uncertainty. Even if you don’t know where the change will eventually take you, if employees see leaders and managers actively committing to actions and they see the follow-through, they are less likely to feel threatened by further uncertainty.
Liking is simple enough. We are wired to be more comfortable around people we like and trust them over others. On a change programme, think about how it can be more friendly and genuine. Where can managers and leaders reach out and lend a friendly hand to support? Are the messages coming across as abrupt and cold? Where can you adapt?
Authority on the other hand is something that is often missed and easy to get right. Are the right, qualified people leading the change? Are they saying the right things and have the credibility needed to see it through and bring people along with them?
Scarcity is a bit more open to interpretation on how it can be used to persuade employees to come along with a change. Sometimes this can mean offering up converted opportunities within an organisation to help drive the change through, other times it can have a more negative slant and defer to scarcity of loss (i.e. if you don’t do this, you will lose out). Powerful to persuade, but not always to build long term trust.
These six methods all offer something slightly different, but when leveraged at the right times, can support a change project’s efforts significantly, and help to manage the potential resistance or negativity surrounding the change.
Employees talk to each other during times of change. We all know this and yet somehow it so easily can slip through our fingers. Word spreads fast, and gossip during change is rife. Knowing about the brain, and how individual people react to change and having some tips and tools up your sleeve to help bring them on a change journey which is focused on people has never been more critical to a change projects’ success. If we want to avoid cognitive vulnerability and negativity, we don’t simply tell them to change their mind, we help them change their mind through positive engaging with purpose and persuasion. We need to put the people who are affected by change first.
Written by Rachel Shaw
If you’d like to find out more about how Afiniti helps clients plan, execute and embed sustainable change solutions, and how we can help you with your change programmes, send us a message and we’ll get straight back to you.