The Adapting Force

By Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP

Change is forced; it’s top down. The very notion of change strikes fear into many hearts because it violates a primitive neural state. David Rock, in Your Brain at Work, illustrates a model for our underlying motives and behaviors. He says we all have toward (reward-based) and away (avoidance-based) responses, all of which are mediated through five categories of neural triggers: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. A threat to one or more of these perceptive areas creates an away response, creating negative stress and a decreased ability to respond rationally. With respect to change, all categories are challenged (specifically, Certainty), which is the why resistance is normally met.

Adapting is different. It is integrated – it listens and responds. Rather than threatening one or more neural triggers, it works with our current perceptions with respect to Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Adapting integrates what already exists and more fluidly translates it into a new status quo.

A McKinsey Quarterly article illustrates well some of the hardships that can occur when such implementation is forced through top-down change. The researchers recount the ‘change’ approach:

The bank’s top managers rapidly communicated to the whole staff the principles behind the new organizational model and the model itself, including how roles, such as those of branch managers and their supervisors, were supposed to change. The top managers did this through a series of road shows, along with other traditional methods, such as memos, articles on the bank’s intranet, and a stand-alone publication that featured all the new organizational charts. Everyone received the same information, and everyone was expected to adopt the new model at the same time.

To their dismay, top managers found that ‘most employees simply hadn’t changed how they worked’.

The leaders then decided to take a more integrated approach to evolving the bank’s structural system. They took what was already in place – key people in key roles which interconnected across the organizational network (strongly resembling Malcolm Gladwell’s Connectors) – and evolved the status quo to a new state. Roles were examined for their influence to the organizational web and leveraged to adapt new systems, processes and philosophies which made the bank more responsive to customer needs. A new structure was seamlessly integrated without challenging perceptions of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness or Fairness.

By understanding how key connectors within the organization had the latent ability to influence those around them without invoking a sense of threat, the bank’s leaders were able to leave intact the neural triggers which resist change. Managers who had already developed relationships and communication patterns within branches were leveraged to help others adapt and evolve their skills more comfortably. In comparison, the top-down, forced communications that the top leaders initially planned had failed miserably because employees’ sense of control (Rock’s Certainty trigger) over the situation had been poorly acknowledged.

Change is a constant in today’s organizational landscape. Knowing how to adapt current habits to future goals is key to successfully navigating a collective through the shifting terrain.

Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP, is a rewards coordinator with Best Buy Canada. Nilesh graduated from Simon Fraser University with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, First Class Honours. He majored in Human Resources Management and tacked on an extended minor in Psychology. He’s a self-confessed nerd (the first step is admitting), likes to read, loves hockey and is struggling with the complexities of learning the game of golf.

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