Understanding change as a significant threat and what to do about it

Change is seen as a threat.

Some of the emerging research from neuroscience confirms what we already know – our brains find change hard!  We still have brains that are hardwired to seek out reward and avoid threats.  The latest research shows that our brains have 5 times more neural networks for avoiding danger than they have for reward.

Like our bodies, our brains have a limited amount of resources and energy.  Fear and perceived or real threats reroute our energy into flight, fight or freeze responses and this can mean we become distracted by trying to work out what the threat means for us.

Feeling threatened changes how we think

This response can change the way we see the world.

  • Minor threats may seem larger than they are
  • We may start to see threats at the workplace where none exist
  • Colleagues may be viewed as threats
  • We may become less able to focus on work and memory may be negatively affected
  • If our field of focus narrows when we are under threat we may become less perceptive of things going on around us.

As we perform less well due to a sense of threat, feelings of stress increase. If our colleagues or leaders are feeling worried or threatened then this feeling will start to spread.

It is easy to see when you have been through significant change at work that at the very time organisations need people to be focused and thinking clearly, the impact of change and uncertainty may be having the opposite effect.

The toward and away states

The ‘toward’ and ‘away’ states refer to the orientation to change.  Under feelings of threat people move away from the change and become harder to influence.  If we want to assist others us to cope with and adapt to change, a ‘toward’ state, then it helps to have some tools to do so.

Research[1] found that there is an overarching organising principle in the brain which is to minimise threat and maximise reward.  Along the way it was found that several aspects of social experience draw upon the same brain networks as those used for primary survival needs.  What was found was that social needs are treated in much the same way in the brain as the need for food and water.  This is a significant finding and suggests we need to redouble our efforts to assist people through change.

SCARFE – ways to minimise threat

SCARFE is an acronym to summarise the factors to be considered in thinking about how to positively support and influence others.  SCARFE focuses on: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, fairness and empathy.

Using this SCARFE framework some tips for supporting the ‘toward’ state are:

  • Giving advice or instructions can threaten status, ask people for their opinions or assistance on a significant project to boost a sense of status
  • Knowing you are better at a skill than others, improving at a skill or being offered a development opportunity all improve a sense of status, so give people clear praise for their skill and their improvements
  • Rejection or exclusion from activities is a sign of reduction in status so inclusion is helpful. Ensure there are regular and inclusive staff meetings
  • Giving feedback threatens status and so using a self-assessment approach with team members is useful when reviewing performance and development needs
  • Try to be as transparent as possible and share information. One of the important pieces of information to share is what will stay the same, as this supports the brain’s craving for certainty
  • Reduce the amount of speculation which goes on between employees in the absence of certainty by providing open, frequent and consistent information by having short, regular meetings
  • As a rule we aren’t keen on being micromanaged! Even advice supplied with good intention can send people into the threat response.  Involving people puts them into the ‘toward state’ – willing to collaborate and help make change happen
  • Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be highly destructive, whereas the same stress interpreted as escapable is shown to be significantly less destructive. Discuss with people the options and career choices they have
  • When we meet new people we tend to think ‘friend or foe’? and because of our neural bias towards threat we tend to think ‘foe’. Feeling that we are surrounded by foes puts us into an away state.  When employees feel they belong they enter a ‘toward state’.  Time with leaders, team meetings, informal social gatherings and team based activities lead employees to feel as if they are part of the in-group
  • Information from people perceived as ‘like us’ is processed using similar circuits for thinking one’s own thoughts, when someone is perceived as foe different circuits are used
  • When treating someone as a competitor the capacity to empathise drops considerably
  • Team building can increase as sense of relatedness by building safe connections with others in the group
  • If things are going to be different then people need to know that the process is going to be fair. It is helpful to be clear about change processes and consistent in their application
  • It has long been known that empathy assists individuals with change. New research[2] suggests employees are much more resilient if they feel they are in the presence of an empathic person and they will try harder and for longer at new tasks
  • Showing empathy involves allowing people to express their responses and reactions and to acknowledge the point of view or emotion being expressed.

In times of change we need to redouble our efforts as leaders to keep ourselves and others moving towards change.

If you would like more information about how to “Lead Change Effectively”, please visit our Workplace Training Page.

Let’s hear your views

  • What have you taken that supports people through change – i.e., moves towards’?
  • What actions have you seen that move people ‘away from’ change?

[1] David Rock is a leading researcher in this field. This article draws upon his work.

[2] Naomi Eisenberger UCLA

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