Date posted: 31/07/2018 6 min read

Is too much change too much?

Business as usual is giving way to constant change. Can the human brain adapt to accept relentless change as the new normal?

In Brief

  • With Change as Usual replacing Business as Usual across industries, professions and sectors, agile workers are in demand.
  • Our default reaction is to respond to uncertainty as a threat, which works against agility, reducing mental flexibility.
  • Experience, psychological practices and certain management approaches can help.

By Thea O’Connor

When organisational change consultant Michelle Gibbings worked in the corporate sector in 2014, a restructure every three years was typical. “In some sectors today, they are happening every year,” she observes.

More than one-third of Australian companies – and 48% of larger companies – are looking to implement restructuring, specific performance improvements or turnaround initiatives in the next three years, according to KPMG’s 2017 Evolving Deals Landscape survey. A 2017 McKinsey Global Survey of 2546 advanced manufacturing executives concluded these industry sectors “will see more disruption within the next five years than in the past 20 years combined”. McKinsey recommended identifying workers who can thrive in the face of ongoing change. 

“To stay of value in the market place, you need to be re-skilling, fast.”
David Brown human capital lead for Deloitte Australia

With technology and other factors speeding up the pace of change, employees need to remain on their toes. “I tell my team that everything I know today will be redundant in three to five years,” says David Brown, human capital lead for Deloitte Australia. “To stay of value in the market place, you need to be reskilling, fast.”

Such mental agility sounds admirable. But the sort of frequent change Brown describes represents a significant challenge to the human brain, says neuroscientist Dr David Rock, director and founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute. Your brain has a default tendency to respond to change and uncertainty as a threat. Employees who are anticipating organisational change and are waiting to hear their fate, experience increased physical and mental health symptoms, according to several large-scale studies.

Overcoming instinct

Can the human brain be trained to overcome its survival instincts and stay clear and calm when faced with the unknown?

In his book Your Brain at Work, Rock argues that there are five domains of social experience that the brain treats the same as survival issues. These are summarised in the acronym SCARF: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Threaten any of these, and you can put workers into a state of fight or flight. 

A 2005 brain imaging study found that even a little ambiguity is enough to light up the amygdala, known as the anxiety centre of the brain. When we don’t know what’s going to happen next, stress levels go up, putting us into a state of high alert just in case danger lurks.

And that state of high alert takes mental resources away from parts of the brain responsible for higher order functions such as learning and remembering new things, processing ambiguity, changing direction in the face of new information, forecasting and planning. So workers need to avoid the threat response and put the prefrontal cortex (PFC) back in charge.

Research demonstrates that specific practices can help to keep the limbic system in check. Noticing and labelling negative emotions, re-appraising a situation by normalising it, seeing the situation from another perspective, and cognitive behavioural therapy are some techniques proven to help people better tolerate uncertainty. Mindfulness – the practice of bringing one’s attention back to the present moment, and noticing feelings, thoughts and sensations without judgement – also helps, says Monash University Associate Professor Dr Craig Hassed. And some people get a “buzz” from constant change: they are naturally comfortable with risk and uncertainty, or score high on the “openness” scale of personality which indicates a propensity to seek out new and challenging experiences.

So it is possible to keep threat reactions at bay when dealing with lots of change. But it’s not necessarily easy, especially when left-of-field changes surprise you. 

Jeffrey Bess, managing director of Brisbane-based engineering firm Projex Partners, has three integrations under his belt and is working on more. He has felt shock, fear and anger in response to business challenges he didn’t see coming. “I’ve learnt how much damage you can do if you just roll with your immediate reaction,” says Bess. “Emotional intelligence, the ability to tone down your original reactions and take a more measured response, is key. It’s up to you whether any negative initial response lasts a minute or a month.”

Practical steps to support change

Managers, who are at the frontline of implementing workplace change, have to deal with people of all temperaments. Regular updates are critical. Managers can stop communicating right at the time when people most want clarity, says Rock. Here are some ways to support teams going through transformations:

· Create opportunities for employees to contribute ideas about key elements of the change process. This is vital as it increases workers’ sense of control, says Gibbings. “Employees then feel more accountable for making the change work.” 

· Rather than expect all workers to be as nimble as each other, Bess recommends accepting the variability in team members’ reactions. “It takes all types to deliver,” he notes.

· Use language people understand. Bess and his team talk about organisational change as managing the risk they won’t survive; engineers are comfortable with risk management.

· Draw on the SCARF model to compensate workers for what they’re losing. Rock suggests workers having to forsake their private desk for an open-plan space might be offered more flexibility in hours, for instance.

· In times of stress, ensure workers prioritise sleep, exercise and short breaks.

Thea O’Connor is a health and business writer, presenter and coach.

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