How to stay calm during organisational change

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This is the last in a series of four articles on Better Organisational Change through Neuroscience by Hilary Scarlett, speaker, consultant and author of Neuroscience for Organizational Change – an evidence-based practical guide to managing change.

Wouldn’t we get through the world of work more easily if we were logical and unemotional? In his book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (2006), neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes working with a patient who has damage to the part of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) which processes emotions.

Damasio describes asking the patient when he would like his next appointment. The patient spends tens of minutes weighing the pros and cons of two potential dates but cannot reach a decision. David Eagleman in his television series, The Brain, meets a woman who has similar damage.

She stands in front of a wide range of potatoes in her local supermarket but she too cannot choose which to buy. By guiding us as to what feels wrong and right, emotions play a crucial role in decision-making.

Emotions help us remember

Another role of emotions is to help us remember: emotions are a way of helping the brain to make a note that if we have felt a strong emotion, then the event that caused the emotion must be important to us and we should remember.

There’s an important point here in terms of communication and learning: if we want employees to remember a point, we need to bring emotion into the experience to help the brain recall it.

By guiding us as to what feels wrong and right, emotions play a crucial role in decision-making.

Emotions can be helpful but sometimes they get in the way

Emotions help shape and change our behaviour. They help us navigate through the social world and guide us in how to respond to others.

So, sometimes they are very useful to us, but other times they get in the way. They are not so useful to us when they are the wrong type of emotion, appear at the wrong time or are of the wrong intensity. Feeling overly stressed, distracted, anxious or angry tends not to be helpful.

The threat response has its uses

Out on the savannah the threat response helped us to freeze, fight or run away when faced by a threat. In the modern world it is the response that helps us to leap out of the way if a car is hurtling at us at great speed.

The threat response kicks in, helps save us, but then it is meant to go away. The problem with the 21st century workplace is that our threat response is constantly being triggered - delays on the journey to work, not knowing whether we will have a desk to work at once we get there, too many conflicting deadlines, difficult colleagues and email inbox that just keeps filling up.

Matt Lieberman of UCLA found that when people named a negative emotion, it reduced that emotion.

The human body and brain are not designed to deal with these constant high levels of stress.

Why do we need to manage our emotions?

There are at least three good reasons

  1. Emotions are contagious – people tend to pick up on the strongest emotion in the room and on the emotions of leaders. So if leaders are feeling anxious and fail to regulate their emotions, their teams are likely to feel the same way. Those leading change owe it to themselves and to others to learn to manage their emotions
  2. Stress damages us physically and mentally: stress hormones are toxic to neurons over the long term. In particular, the hippocampus which has an important role in memory is particularly vulnerable to stress. The amygdala is a part of the brain that plays an important role in processing emotions and in particular in picking up on external threats. If the amygdala is frequently activated then it becomes all the more sensitive and all the more easily triggered so making us even more susceptible to feeling anxious and distracted.
  3. Some techniques such as suppression, which we typically use in the workplace when we want to look calm but don’t feel it, don’t work. Research shows that suppressing emotions leads to higher blood pressure in the person who is doing the suppressing, but also in those around them. Suppressing emotions uses up energy, is distracting and reduces our ability to focus and to remember.

Developing the ability to choose your response

Learning how to dampen down unwanted emotions gives us choice over how to respond to situations and enables us to make calm and informed decisions. Good leaders need to be able to do this.

Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist, said that between the stimulus and response, there is a gap. We need to learn to find that gap so that we don’t just react but choose how to respond.

So, what are some of the techniques that neuroscience has shown to work?

Labelling

One of the simplest is labelling emotions.

Matt Lieberman of UCLA found that when people named a negative emotion, it reduced that emotion.

Often we have doubts as to whether we should let people talk about their emotions at work but Lieberman’s work shows that by saying ‘I am really angry about this’ reduces the anger.

Reframing/re-appraising

Another useful technique is to choose to look at a situation slightly differently or from another’s perspective. An example of this is a client of mine who had been away on holiday for a week. When she returned to work she found that a colleague of whom she is not particularly fond had called a supplier and told them to stop work on my client’s project.

Suppressing emotions leads to higher blood pressure in the person who is doing the suppressing, but also in those around them.

My client was livid and was about to tell her colleague exactly what she thought of her. We talked and I asked her to pause for a moment: perhaps someone else had told her colleague to call the supplier, perhaps her colleague had been right and there was a flaw in the project? The point was that there was more than one way to interpret the situation.

Reappraisal reduces the emotion and reduces activity in the amygdala.

Distancing

Viewing yourself in the third person and talking about yourself in the third person (but you might want to be careful about where you do this!) have also been proven to be useful techniques.

They put some distance between ourselves and the event and the emotion. It is a technique coaches sometimes use to enable their clients to look at a situation more objectively.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness has come to the fore and gets a lot of coverage in the media. There are now a great many studies (albeit many on a small base) that suggest that mindfulness can improve our attention and control of stress.

Brain scans have shown that with time it can alter the structure of the brain and increase cortical thickness. There are lots of books and apps and classes to learn about mindfulness. One simple form is to focus on the breath, observe thoughts coming into your mind, but letting them go non-judgementally.

Developing the ability to observe the thought or feeling and choosing to let it go, improves our skill in seeing the gap between stimulus and response, just as Viktor Frankl recommended.

Now that you have reached the end of this article and the series, stop for one minute, close your eyes and focus on your breath, just for 60 seconds. Let thoughts and feeling come and let them go. How did that feel?

About Hilary Scarlett

Hilary Scarlett

Hilary’s work has spanned Europe, the US and Asia and concentrates on the development of people-focused change programmes and employee engagement. Hilary regularly works with leadership teams in the private and public sectors to help them build resilience and introduce change efficiently and effectively. She has won various global awards for her work in employee engagement and change management.

Hilary designed and led the Neuroscience of Leadership masterclass for Senior Civil Servants in the UK – one of Civil Service Learning’s most highly-recommended products.  She has recently conducted research into the impact of leaders learning about applied neuroscience. Participating organisations were Lloyds Banking Group, Orbit Housing Group, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and BAE Systems.

Hilary holds an MA from Cambridge University, she has a post-graduate Certificate in the Psychology of Organisation Development and Change and is an accredited executive coach with the Institute of Leadership and Management. Hilary qualified with Distinction at the NeuroLeadership Institute in the application of neuroscience to leadership, change, motivation and performance. Over the last year, Hilary has been working with Professor Walsh of University College London to apply cognitive neuroscience to practical management tools.

Hilary regularly writes and speaks on neuroscience and employee engagement and her book Neuroscience for Organizational Change - an evidence-based, practical guide to managing change was published by Kogan Page on 3 February 2016.

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