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

Monday, 12 October 2009

Story conference: habits, corporate culture & stories for change

Summary: An article based on content presented at the Celebrating Story conference held last week in Melbourne, Australia. The post talks about how individual habits form, how organizational habits are the corporate culture or "the way we do things around here" and how, during culture change projects, stories can be used to mediate the tension between individual survival responses and participation in the larger (organizational) group.
NB: This post is an abridged version of an article on transformational culture change in organizations due to be available later this month - to request a copy of the article upon its publication, email the author.

Habits are handy

Remember when you first learned how to drive a car or ride a bike?

In the beginning it took a whole lot of conscious, focused attention to learn this new task. Quite soon, though, the movements needed for that activity became more or less automatic. So much so, that sometimes you (like most people) will drive somewhere you've been to many times before and, upon arrival, have no recollection at all of having made the trip.

Similarly, if you try to explain in words to someone how to ride a bike, it's a really hard thing to do. Your long repetition of bike-riding behaviour has turned it into a habit and actually put it outside your conscious awareness, into an automatic set of movements.

The mechanics behind this process work like this. When you first sat astride that bike or buckled up in the driver's seat of a car you engaged in some pretty serious and focused attention, so as not to either scuff your knees or wrap your dad's car around a tree. At times like this, you're consciously engaging your cortical brain - that's the part which engages in complex tasks by weighing different options, considering evidence and laying down the new neural pathways required for learning and skill acquisition.

This is the "heavy-lifting" part of your brain; a processing powerhouse, the possession of which separates we humans from other species. It's hugely expensive to operate in caloric energy terms: it takes about 25-30% of the body's available energy to engage in sustained cognitive activity, like that required to learn a new complex task. That's why after a long period of intense concentration like studying for a test you're exhausted. Even though you were not very physically active, you probably demolished a big meal soon after and had a nice long sleep.

In order to manage your body's resources most efficiently the brain automates as many cognitive activities as possible. New learning is swiftly turned into automatic patterns of behaviour. They become habits and, as you have probably experienced, they can be very tricky things to try to change. As they become simply "the way you do things," they drop out of your conscious awareness. You find you have "imperfect introspective access" to your habits, making them hard to shift and a very powerful force for the maintenance of the status quo.

Vive la différence

Eating the same evening meal day in, day out can be comforting habit. It's efficient, no thought is required and it probably saves time and effort that you can expend on other things.

However, it also means you'll miss other experiences and culinary opportunities. It leaves you exposed if the ingredients for your favourite meal are suddenly unavailable. Your body may rebel against this monotony and develop an intolerance for some of the foods. The point is: the efficiencies that habits can bring can also stand in the way of the flexibility needed to adapt to internal and outside changes.

Organizational habits: Corporate Culture

A similar process happens on a wider scale in organizations. They can be said to have "habits" too, ones that, taken together, form the corporate culture - a concept that is most often described simply as "the way we do things around here". Corporate culture can therefore also be a powerful force for the maintenance of the status quo and, as with the dinner example above, most of the time that's OK.

However for an organization to be flexibly adaptable (e.g. for the organization to move from where it is now to where it needs to be in order to deliver on its strategic goals) many of the habitual patterns wrapped up in the corporate culture will need to change as well.

Now mention “corporate culture” to people in an organization and most will return a blank look, an uncertain smile, or a tentative nod. Having a conversation about culture is a bit like trying to talk to a fish about water - the awareness level is just not very high, because everyone is so completely immersed in the culture.

Any organizational change initiative will very quickly run smack into habitual, automatic patterns of behaviour. The way that people are invited to take part in that change process will therefore determine from the very start how successful the shift will be, and what results will be achieved as the new strategy is executed.

Change can unbalance "The Battle inside your Brain"

Since the habits of corporate culture are powerful forces to maintain the status quo, you need equally powerful countervailing efforts to shift these habits. The thorny question is: will making a powerful case for culture change encourage people to rationally evaluate new ways of operating using their cortical brain networks, or will it represent a source of disruption, insecurity and distress that's seen as a threat and triggers a limbic survival response in each individual?

The way that a change initiative is launched and managed will determine how well you set people up to be on the productive side of The Battle inside their Brain.

Remember that the limbic emotional brain network is where you see the classic knee-jerk reaction - act first, then consider - as it makes decisions first, then seeks justification (or rationalization) for the decision after the fact.

Meanwhile the cortical rational brain network is built to weighing options and alternatives, gathering data and information and then make decisions based on careful analysis and thoughtful debate - consider first, then act. It's in this latter part of the brain that our better nature and true talents as functional adults is located. During a change, you want people to be spending lots of time there and as little time as possible in their limbic survival mode.

What's tricky is that the limbic survival reaction produces powerful emotions and reacts faster than the cortical rational brain. Here's why.

Survival strategies and the Individual

When any change happens in their environment, people will have an immediate response at a very basic level of the brain, the limbic system.

This is a survival response and one that is deeply hardwired - essentially it provides the motivation to focus your attention and assess the situation that you now face in terms of what threats may be present and whether there's action that needs to be taken to ensure your survival.

These survival responses are made up of something that you've no doubt heard of before: the "3 F's" of fight-flight-freeze response.

The limbic system is much older in evolutionary terms than the larger cortical brain, which means that these emotionally-fuelled fight-flight-freeze reactions happen even before we’re consciously aware of them. Now, these reactions have to be fast or they wouldn't be of much use to keep you alive in threatening situations where instant action is required.

The price you pay for the limbic system's speed is that it bypasses the rational cortical brain. Because your rational cortical brain is the part which enables you to consider evidence, weigh alternatives and make well-thought-through decisions, it means that pre-cortical, unconscious reactions can produce some really dumb decisions. Also because the limbic system is a critical part of our age-old, hardwired survival mechanism there's no way to "turn it off". That is to say, you can't NOT have a reaction to things.

The question is, what you do with the emotional energy that results.

Managing this energy requires that people know their most frequent survival strategy: fight-flight-freeze. To use less provocative terms, think of them as gears that you switch depending on whether you need to go forward, reverse, or just be in neutral.
  • Forward (fight) is all about action, but it can't be your only survival mode; faced with something bigger and toothier than we are, it makes sense to have other reactions to fall back on.
  • Reverse gear (flight) is the withdrawal mode, where you disengage to observe the surroundings for signs of danger and decide whether to re-engage or flee still further.
  • Neutral (freeze) in this context is the in-between mode, staying put and being mostly non-threatening and compliant.
These reactions are reactive, not thoughtful. Fighters will unthinkingly attack a change initiative, Fleers will unthinkingly withdraw either mentally or sometimes even physically from the environment, while Freezers will unthinkingly agree and be compliant, but not have any capacity for real engagement with the change.

People in survival mode are in a emotionally high-strung state of limbic lock-down. They will be barely functional as rational adult individuals and even less inclined to participate in groups. Since each person's limbic behaviour tends to trigger a limbic response in others, teams devolve into an animalistic battle of each-against-all.

As each person's limbic response ricochets and intensifies that of others, the group's level of emotional reactivity rises and other team members come to be viewed one of two ways: as competition or food. In such a setting change becomes impossible and people long for the safety and familiarity of habitual patterns - hence why so often a few months after a change is introduced, people revert back to pre-change behaviour patterns.

We live in tribes and tell stories

This may all sound quite grim, a bit like an organizational Lord of the Flies (a.k.a. The Apprentice TV series). Thankfully, two characteristics of human beings offer a way to mediate this state of high tension between individual survival and group participation: 1) we are inherently social animals and 2) we are meaning-making machines.

1) Our social brains. There's something called the default mode network in the brain, which is "what the brain does when it is doing nothing in particular" and involves primarily two areas of the brain.
Researchers don’t agree on all the components of the default network, but consensus is growing that it has two major hubs: the posterior cingulate cortex, or PCC, with the precuneus, and the medial prefrontal cortex. The functions ascribed to those two areas may give clues to what the default network is good for. The medial prefrontal cortex is involved in imagining, thinking about yourself and “theory of mind,” which encompasses the ability to figure out what others think, feel or believe and to recognize that other people have different thoughts, feelings and beliefs from you. The precuneus and PCC are involved in pulling personal memories from the brain’s archives, visualizing yourself doing various activities and describing yourself. [...] Together, these hubs give you a sense of who you are. Their prominence in the network has led some researchers to propose that the function of the default mode is to allow you to internally explore the world and your place in it, so you can plot future actions, including contingency plans for various scenarios you might encounter.*
So it seems that when you're not thinking of anything else, you're thinking about yourself - as defined by your social relationship with others. In other words: as defined through interactions with the group.

2) Stories. A good deal of research has confirmed the human predilection to make characters and narratives out of whatever we see in the world around us. Put simply, we are meaning-making machines. In keeping with the above, it's also interesting to note the role that stories play to promote social cohesion among groups and serve as a valuable method for passing on information. Moreover, stories and narratives play a key role in persuasion: people accept ideas more readily when their minds are in story mode as opposed to when they are in an analytical mind-set.** (Hat-tip Shawn for this article.)

Practical takeaways

God turns you from one feeling to another
And teaches you by means of opposites
So that you will have two wings to fly
Not one. ~ Rumi

Illustration credit: Simon Kneebone, Cartoonist & Illustrator

Our default mode is to define our selves in social terms through relation to others and we tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world around us. We're naturally tribal, storytelling creatures. In this tension of opposites, between the individual's concern for survival and his/her desire to belong to a group, there can be found both the high energy of the emotional limbic survival response and the amazing human capacity for complex thought and meaning-making.

From the very start of a change process, leaders need to use stories and encourage people to channel their emotions into productive behaviours. This can be successfully done in two practical ways:
  1. Help individuals to recognize and manage their own limbic emotional reactivity, through awareness of the nine predictable limbic types (see below, Workshop).
  2. Engage the group with story, with a narrative journey of change that sets the context, lays out the strategy, invites participation, shows the benefits, engages at an emotional level, outlines the detailed plan, and finally looks forward to positive future state (see below, Consultancy).

Are you a slave to your emotions or is your emotional energy serving you?

Workshop: The 9 Survival Strategies - which ones you use and how to put them to work for you (as presented at Melcrum's Strategic Comms conference Sydney, and used by Deutsche Bank, Lloyds TSB Bank, AMP, and other organizations in Australia and the UK).

What's the story of your next organizational culture change project?

: To learn more about how tmc helps leaders to effectively engage their teams through times of change, email Todd.

Peter Burow. "The Art & Science of Transformational Leadership."
**Jeremy Hsu. "The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn - Our love for telling tales reveals the workings of the mind," Scientific American Mind, August/September 2008, 46-51.
M.D. Lieberman, D. Schreiber & K.N. Ochsner. "Is Political Cognition like riding a bicycle? How cognitive neuroscience can inform research on political thinking," Political Psychology, 24(4) 2003, 681-704.
*Tina Hesman Saey, "You are who you are by default," Science News, 176(2) July 18th 2009, 16.


1 comment:

Andrew Rixon said...

Nice one Todd!

Love the pic by Simon too.

Warm regards,