Change or Perish

Notwithstanding all that we have been through, with the advent of the pandemic, I still see businesses and business leaders struggling with the adaptation to change. Some seem to be hoping for a post-pandemic era which will revert to the same reality of the pre-pandemic era. All indications are that increasing volatility, complexity and rapid change is the new normal, which requires new ways to drive change within organisations — new ways that mobilise the employee base to actively participate in creating solutions and providing leadership. Hence to survive, business organisations must not only change but find ways to become more agile and adaptable organisations.

From surviving to thriving
Human beings are resistant to many kinds of change. However, we are also a species driven by curiosity and programmed to seek out novelty. The difference between embracing and resisting change is rooted in our hard wiring. Evolution has resulted in a two-channel system, which is responsible for much of our response in times of uncertainty. The Survive Channel is activated by threats and leads to feelings of fear, anxiety and stress. Then we have, the Thrive Channel which is activated by opportunities and is associated with feelings of excitement, passion, joy and enthusiasm. So to create smart, fast changing organisations business leaders needs to prevent the Survive Channel from overheating while activating the Thrive Channel in sufficient numbers of people – leading to more innovation, adaptation and leadership.

Focusing on the Survive Channel, combined with the emphasis on reliability and efficiency reinforced by traditional management systems, leads to organisations that generally overheat the Survive Channel and under-activate the Thrive Channel. Organisations that can change quickly require leaders who can both calm an overheated Survive Channel and amplify Thrive, for themselves and others.

If there is one strong message from the rapid organisational change that had to happen in response to the pandemic, that strong message is the one related to leadership — specifically, the need for more of it from more people. Leadership as a behaviour and not a position. Leadership has the capacity to meet the change challenge of today. There is a strong need to reconstruct the modern organisation and create an environment that fosters more autonomy, participation and leadership.

So the next question, that comes out quite naturally is: What can we do to to keep the Survive channel on check and allow the Thrive channel to grow? Here are some insights:

  • Reduce the Noise:While the amount of actionable information that managers and employees receive is increasing, it is accompanied by an even greater increase in distracting “noise.” This makes it harder to find the right information and make good decisions, but can also easily trigger the Survive Channel. Spreadsheets, monthly budget updates, customer satisfaction surveys and many more artifacts of business operations can all provide some information that the brain views as threatening — making it impossible to focus clearly on the most important priorities, to innovate or to develop new ideas. To reduce this noise, leaders should ask themselves: What reports are being sent to employees who have no real use for them? What activities are continuing simply because that is how we have always done things? What metrics are redundant or only marginally useful? What frequency is truly appropriate for meetings, reports and any repeat activities?
  • Eliminate Unnecessary Uncertainty: Uncertainty, even more so than known threats, can trigger an overactive Survive channel. Our natural response to a threat is to focus solely on eliminating it. But an uncertain threat is hard to address, leading to a prolonged state of highly activated Survive channel. This is why one of the most important roles for leaders is helping to remove uncertainty whenever possible. Leaders often believe that providing no information is better than incomplete information but doing so will only create anxiety amongst employees or hurt their credibility as a leader. Given our natural threat-seeking radar, employees are likely to “fill in the gaps” with their own assumptions. These assumptions are often inaccurate or presume worst-case scenario, further exacerbating anxiety. Transparency around what is known, what is unknown, what actions are being taken, and what outcomes are anticipated can provide context and prevent unfounded fear or anxiety.
  • Lean on Opportunities, Not Just Threats: Very little of the conversation in organisations today is about opportunity. Often, leaders resort to driving change through a burning platform — using an immediate (and often threatening) crisis as a tipping point for change. This fear-driven motivation encourages some initial action but shuts down Thrive. A burning platform may work in situations where more intensity or a short burst of “working harder” is needed, but it does not work where new ideas or new ways of working are critical to success. What is needed, in these cases, is action motivated by a desire to achieve an exciting opportunity. Relentlessly finding opportunities, even when faced with setbacks, requires understanding the landscape. What are the organization’s challenges, and what is possible through innovation? What customer, employee, community, supplier, or shareholder needs are not being addressed, and what is the payoff of meeting those needs? Answering these questions and flooding the organisation with communication about what’s possible is critical to activating Thrive and enabling employees to see and respond to opportunities. Communicating aspirations, possibilities and exciting frontiers touches hearts, not just minds, which encourages people to engage almost voluntarily — not only because they have to.
  • Celebrate Progress: Management systems are normally set at providing reports and updates on progress — largely focused on assessing performance to identify gaps and take corrective action where required. What is missing is the celebration of success, which is critical for convincing skeptics and removing obstacles to successful implementation. Recognising, communicating and applauding the achievement of milestones or successful pilot efforts can provide the dose of positive energy needed to sustain the change effort. Creating an environment where success is celebrated frequently and loudly primes the opportunity-seeking radar and reduces the energy required to activate the thrive channel.
  • Delegate Control: Successful change efforts need to have early engagement and support from a broad, diverse employee base. An environment where leaders encourage and delegate control helps inspire initiative and leadership because more people are invested in achieving the outcomes. When individuals have more agency in making decisions, they will not only be more committed to ensuring these decisions are successful, but they will also approach it from a “want-to,” opportunity-focused mindset. This activates the thrive channel and the corresponding positive emotions: pride and purpose.

The single biggest challenge business organisations face today is to adapt fast enough to match the increasing uncertainty and complexity around us. Any organisation’s success or failure at dealing with this increasingly fast-changing world could affect the lives of many people. By acting in new ways and thinking of leadership as behaviors that we can all exhibit, we can better respond to rapid change, and create workplaces that truly allow people to thrive.

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