Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Friday, 3 April 2009

Change is a long car trip with kids in the back

Spare any change (ideas)...?

Melcrum's Change Communications conference in Melbourne has wrapped for the week and has, I think, been quite well received.

A major theme that I heard as I chaired the conference was that those in attendance wanted and needed communications professionals to take a strong advocacy role for change in organizations, to remind leaders of the people-related consequences of change.

The intention was clear, yet the frustration was palpable. What came through was that communicators find themselves largely unable to play this vital role in their organizations.

Many attendees questioned how to effectively counsel leaders who advocate secrecy, low information-sharing and last-minute revelation of tough messages, on the grounds that they "don't want people to react" to the changes.

In fact this seemingly thoughtful intention causes no end of drama, as communication professionals (or anyone on the receiving end of meagre information dribble and too-little, too-late change messages) can confirm.

The reason for this is simple: human beings are neurobiologically hardwired to react to the things that happen around them - and the greater the perceived threat, the stronger the reaction. 

Our advanced survival system

In the interest of survival, we have evolved a system (the limbic system) that is brilliant at bypassing our slow and ponderous rational brain by reacting at lightning speed to possible threats. Whether that's an object that enters our visual field and just might be a snake/spider/other nasty, or an announcement that puts in question our ability to earn a living, threats produce a reaction in the brain long before the rational mind even begins to absorb the more subtle connotations and factual details.

So, in short: people cannot NOT react to things

What can and sometimes does happen is people become aware of the reaction and choose to use that powerful emotional energy in a different (ideally, more rational) way.

Communicators can therefore help themselves and, by extension, their stakeholders and clients, by learning about the nine predictable types of limbic reaction and tailoring their communication plans and key messages to calm down people's agitated limbic responses. Doing so makes it more likely that people will be able to manage their own reaction, as the rational brain is given the chance to become more engaged to give a more balanced hearing to the rest of what is being said.

Change is a journey

Speakers at the conference often made the point that "change is a journey". I would agree, though I'd modify that slightly: change is like a long car trip with unruly kids in the back seat, where the kids in question are the reactive emotional responses that people's limbic systems produce. 

Why kids in the back? Well the limbic system, for all its power to help us survive, is not very sophisticated. It is located in some of the most ancient parts of our brains - the ones we share with all sorts of other mammals - which means when we're operating solely from our limbic brain, we're about as sophisticated as a poodle or a goldfish. 

Or a five-year old kid. 

Such childish reactions can take a variety of forms - bullying, sulking, throwing temper tantrums, and a range of other knee-jerk reactions.

So as we consider our leaders and communicators in the front seat trying, like mom and dad, to move forward with the journey AND keep the peace and sanity in the car, let's take a look at the nine kinds of little kids in the back seat of our car journey:
  1. "We all have to follow the rules! Mom! Dad! Johnny's touching my side of the car!!" (Perfectionist/Rule-followers)
  2. "Is everyone OK? Daddy, do you want a neck rub? Mom, can I sing you a song to make you happy?" (Giver/Carers)
  3. "Can't we get there faster? Hey let's race the car next to us! Let's visit every attraction on the list!" (Performer/Achiever)
  4. "Didn't you bring my special seat for me? Awwww no one understands me, I have special needs..." (Romantic/Individualist)
  5. [says next to nothing, watches everything and everyone, probably tracks the route on a map and notes everything with interest] (Observer/Data-gatherer)
  6. "Are you sure you know the way? Do we have the right map? What if we run out of gas? Were we supposed to take that last exit...?" (Loyal sceptic/Paranoid)
  7. "Hey! I've got a GREAT idea, let's have a singalong! Let's play count-the-cars! Hey who wants a game of rock-paper-scissors? Ohh, I know...let's stop and eat at that place, that looks great!!" (Epicure/Fun-seeker)
  8. "We're going to stop NOW. I want OUT of this car. No actually I changed my mind, we're going to drive ALL night and get this over with!" (Protector/Bully)
  9. "Hey, let's calm down everyone. What can we all agree on? What do you want mom? And you dad? How about you, sis? OK so the consensus is..." (Peacemaker/Facilitator)
If you'd like to find out more about these nine kids (and their adult counterparts that you may be currently experiencing in your workplace...) email me for further details. If you were an attendee at the Melcrum Communications Conference in Melbourne last week, be sure to inquire about the special "Change is a long car trip" offer.

That's all for now - enjoy your weekend!

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