In my last column I wrote about some key things to get right when embarking on organisational change. However, an organisation can only change when each one of its people does. So now I am following up with important things to know about change at the level of the individual.
I wrote last time that people don’t hate change; people change all the time. But we know it’s true that some changes are really hard to make. And getting other people to do a change we want them to do is even harder. One of the best explanations I’ve come across about why this happens was developed by Jonathan Haidt, a Professor of Psychology at New York University. Haidt describes our brain as having two parts:
• our ancient “mammal” brain (the limbic system),responsible for emotions and memory, • our modern “human” brain (the neocortex), responsible for logic and rational thought.
There is a tension between those two parts. Haidt invites us to think of our emotional brain as an elephant, and our rational brain as its rider. When things are going well, the rider appears to be in control. But the rider’s control is in fact precarious, because if the six-tonne elephant doesn’t want to let the rider lead it, the rider is helpless. And if the elephant becomes angry, scared or hurt, the rider is at its complete mercy. We have probably all had a situation where our elephant has taken over – when our emotions became so big and powerful that we did something illogical, irrational or unwise. That was when our rider lost control of our elephant.
This struggle between our rational and emotional brains explains why some change is hard to make. Have you ever been to a workshop or webinar and left thinking, “That’s a really good idea. I know what to do and I’m going to start,” but then not been able to sustain the change? It’s probably because you didn’t have an emotional connection to the intended change. Remember, the elephant is about emotion and memory. So if you haven’t felt a reason why you should change, if you’re not moved by a need to change or inspired by what this change might bring, the elephant will stay put.
Your rider may have all the data, logic and analysis on their side, but if the elephant doesn’t get it, it’s not going to be moved. And if the change doesn’t fit with everything the elephant has learned through your life about keeping you safe and happy, it will fight it with everything its got. The elephant will say to the rider, “I see your rational evidence and I raise you one tortuous emotional memory.” Or, “I see your solid data and I raise you one existential fear.”
We have just seen a great example of an elephant-aligned change on a national scale with the Level 4 lockdown. We have known for years that we need to arrest the dramatic pace of climate change by flying less, driving less, and consuming less. Notice I wrote “we have known?” We’ve heard the science, seen the data, read the predictions, seen the evidence even. Our rider knows what to do and why. But until our elephant was hit with the fear of illness and death, we weren’t motivated to do it. Suddenly, fear – that great motivator – pushed us to these really hard things, and we did. And now we are safer. Climate change and Covid are both enormous threats to humanity, but our ancient elephant brain doesn’t understand the former, so change there is much harder.
So how can we use this knowledge of the tension between the rational and emotional parts of our brain to help us make sensible, significant change, and to get change happening across our organisation?As we’ve seen, the emotional brain is the most powerful part of our brain, so any attempt to get people to change must get the elephant on board. This is connected to what I wrote in my last column, about making change ‘intentional’ rather than ‘imposed.’ When people can contribute to the change, they can mold it to something they want, or need, believe in, or are inspired by. Their elephant gets it. You’ve got to find the feeling. You need to tap into an emotion so that your people are motivated to make the change. Hope is a powerful emotion, or it may be passion, love, pride, desire. As we’ve seen, fear is a great motivator, and while I don’t suggest you try to cultivate that in your people, sometimes it is present by way of external forces.
We saw a beautiful example in this paper recently of how fear for their livelihoods and compassion for their fellow workers combined to motivate the employees of Tuapeka Print to save 60 jobs. Due to the climate of Covid, the company had announced 110 jobs were to be lost from a workforce of 330. In the ODT on July 16, Chief Executive Greg Jolly was quoted saying "Every one of our team has dealt with the restructure maturely and constructively, despite the prospect they might face being out of work. Our people have put forward great ideas and alternative proposals and they gave the process everything they could — 100 per cent.” 50 job losses is still extremely tough for the company, the workers affected, and their families, but Tuapeka Print’s highly motivated staff came up with and implemented changes that reduced the number of scheduled redundancies by 55%.
That is the power of the elephant.
This article originally featured in Sarah's "Connections" column in The Otago Daily Times 31/08/2020