Insights from neuroscience and making change programmes more effective – Interview with Hilary Scarlett

brain human

Today’s interview is with Hilary Scarlett, a speaker and consultant on change management and neuroscience at Scarlett & Grey. Hilary joins me today to talk about her new book: Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-based Practical Guide to Managing Change, why our brains don’t like change, what people who manage change should think about doing differently, the role of emotions in the change process and how that emotions are contagious.

This interview follows on from my recent interview – Why every business should be hugging their haters – Interview with Jay Baer of Convince & Convert – and is number 171 in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, helping businesses innovate and delivering great service and experience to their customers.

Highlights of my interview with Hilary:

  • The majority of change and transformation programmes fail to meet their objectives and change is often seen as a ‘soft’ area.
  • Moreover, the people element of a change programme is often considered very late in the day once everything else has been decided.
  • Hilary’s interest in neuroscience started a number of years ago and her particular interest lies in what happens in peoples brains when we go through change.
  • Our brains don’t like organisational change as they are primarily concerned with survival.
  • Change introduces a degree of unpredictability about the future and that sends the brain into a fight/flight state.
  • Inside the brain what this means is that blood moves away from our pre-frontal cortex (where we do all of our thinking and feeling) and, thus, if we are unsure of the future we can become distracted and we can start to see the work environment and colleagues in a more hostile and threatening way. This, in turn, can have a hugely negative impact on performance.
  • Our brains don’t like things that they can’t predict or can’t control.
  • Therefore, the more information that we can give to people the better.
  • Getting people involved with the design of a programme or giving them control over certain elements of a programme can deliver a sense of control and choice.
  • Most leaders tend to consider a lot of data, synthesise it, make a decision and then switch into broadcast mode. However, if firms gave their people the same set of data and allowed them the time to come to their own conclusions that would be better.It will also help people feel like they have made a choice and then they will be much more committed to that choice or course of action.
  • It’s a false economy to say that we haven’t got time to involve people, where appropriate.
  • In fact, even in the worst scenarios where a business has to be closed down….giving employees a say in how the office is closed down can really help with the smoothness of the change process, their commitment to the process but can also help how people feel about the whole process.
  • Neuroplasticity is one of the most exciting things that has come out of neuroscience in recent years and relates to the fact our brains do keep developing as we get older. You can teach old dogs new tricks.
  • Also, that we can keep on learning, but only if we choose to. This is related to the Young Brain, Old Brain concept that Tim Drake has written about here on this blog before.
  • Combining the ideas of neuroplasticity, generating dopamine and learning into change programmes can help us perform better and feel better about an overall change programme.
  • The smallest changes in a change programme can generate dopamine and increase engagement and learning. Here’s a few examples:
    • Allowing people to reach their own insights;
    • Breaking goals down from annual and quarterly goals into weekly and daily goals as this can give people a sense of continuous achievement; and
    • Reminding people of past successes when things get difficult.
  • Winning breeds winning.
  • So, the challenge is how can you make people feel good about achieving and make them feel that they are achieving. Boxers use this tactic when they are challenging for a title and routinely take on a lesser opponent before a title bout. The reason behind this is that it is as much about feeling good about winning and boosting confidence than it is about an opportunity to test themselves.
  • We need to learn the lessons of what went wrong but also to realise that we shouldn’t dwell on that too much on the past and instead focus on where are we winning and how can we keep on winning.
  • It’s fascinating how little things that are insignificant to some people are huge to other people.
  • We also need to recognise the impact the words that we use have on people’s emotional state. So, rather than talking about transformation or change perhaps we should start thinking doing things differently.
  • There is research to support the idea that the words that we use can affect our memories and perceptions of situations.
  • One of the challenges for the brain is staying focused and blocking out distractions. But, staying focused can be quite boring for the brain and, as a result, it can be quite stressful. Therefore, the challenge is how can you bring in a bit of innovation/novelty into the everyday work situation/change programme that strikes the balance between staving off the boredom whilst also allowing people to stay focused and engaged.
  • If you want people to be creative and innovative then let them get away from their desks and out of the office. Allow them to seek out quiet time where they have space to think. It’s no coincidence that we come up with so many great ideas when in the shower or whilst out taking a walk or after we’ve slept on something etc.
  • Lloyds Bank, BAE Systems, the UK Government’s Dept of Business and Orbit Housing are early pioneers of the application of these insights.
  • Baumeister is a very interesting psychologist at UCLA who is looking into the social brain. One of the things that he has found is that if an individual does not feel part of the ‘in-group’ or feels excluded in some way then their decision-making ability and IQ can tend to fall.
  • Changing habits is hard and takes time and commitment.
  • Top tips to get started:
    • Do some research and understand some basics about how the brain works and what trips us into the ‘threat’ state.
    • Review your change programme and understand what elements may bring about a threat state
    • The brain craves information so give people as much information as you can.
    • Give people more control/say into what happens to them.
    • Emotions are contagious. Therefore, if you are stressed try not to show it as people will sense it. However, the same is also true for positive emotions so leaders need to be more aware of their emotions and how that impacts their people.
    • However, trying to keep emotions in check will reduce an individuals ability to focus. Therefore, it’s good to not keep things bottled up all of the time and get things out in the open, wherever possible.
  • Check out Hilary’s book: Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-based Practical Guide to Managing Change but also check out the masterclasses she runs as a great intro to this subject. More details can be found at Scarlett & Grey.

About Hilary (adapted from her LinkedIn profile)

Hilary ScarlettHilary’s work is about enabling employees to perform at their best. She and the people she works with build understanding about what helps people to focus and thrive at work. In particular, she believe that if people understand how their brains work, they can work at their best. What your employees think, feel and do makes all the difference. You can have the most brilliant idea but it will only happen if employees understand it, support it and feel they are capable of delivering it. Her aim is to create this clarity, belief and commitment.

Hilary works with scientists to bring neuroscience out of the lab and into the workplace – making it relevant and practical. In additional to her very successful Neuroscience Masterclass for Leaders, Hilary regularly speaks at open and in-house conferences.

Check out Hilary’s book: Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-based Practical Guide to Managing Change but also check out the masterclasses she runs as a great intro to this subject. More details can be found at Scarlett & Grey.

Finally, feel free to connect with Hilary on LinkedIn here and say Hi to her on Twitter @Hilary_Scarlett.

Photo Credit: A Health Blog via Compfight cc

Comments

  1. Fascinating interview Adrian, it reminds me very much of the quote you shared with me the other day:

    To be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it ~ Olin Miller

    I wonder how many change professionals fall into the later camp.

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