How Psychology Promotes Organizational Change – A Guide by Hilary Scarlett

Organizational change impact on our brains

According to Hilary Scarlett, organizational change can often be a stressful experience for most employees, whose performance declines as a result.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – communicators aren’t spending enough time getting their heads around psychology and how it can help us better engage with our audiences (what’s the point in understanding the how of our jobs, if we don’t get the why).

The above reason is why I was thrilled to see a keynote presentation on neuroscience by Hilary Scarlett at IABC’s Eurocomm event recently. Hilary is an expert in the area of cognitive neuroscience; she’s written extensively on how the discipline can and should be used by communicators and management teams, especially during times of change.

I’d like to share key takeaways from Hilary’s presentation, as well as from her book, Neuroscience for Organizational Change (thank you for the gift Jasna!), here, in the hope that these insights will help you manage organizational change.

  • We’re not Designed for Change

Our brains haven’t evolved at the same pace as our workplaces. As Hilary explained, our brains aren’t designed for 21st century corporate life. Rather, the brain’s goal is survival. We do this by avoiding threats and seeking rewards. However, of the two responses the threat response is much stronger, which explains why there’s so much resistance to change. Our brains are constantly looking to predict what will happen.

'Not everyone is able to cope with change.'

Cavemen in the office? Our brains haven’t developed at the same pace as our workplaces (image source: cartoonstock.com)

But there is neuroplasticity; our brains can restructure, change and learn throughout our life, if we choose to continue developing ourselves (lifelong learning).

  • We Don’t Like Change

This is a logical extension to how our brains work. We want predictability, which helps with survival. For many of us, organizational change is the exact opposite of predictability, and we see it as a threat. When we see a threat, we switch to a ‘fight or flight’ mentality and think less rationally. We become more hostile in the workplace.

Fight Or Flight

When we feel threatened, we switch to a fight or flight mode. This is especially true during times of change (image source: psychlopedia.wikispaces.com).

The issue of certainty is crucial here. Research shows that we’re more comfortable with knowing bad news, than not knowing anything at all (the don’t say anything to the last minute approach, which seems to be the way many organizations work when it comes to communicating bad news).

We’re also guided by our past experiences, and they shape our current behavior and attitudes.

  • SPACES – A Planning Tool for Supporting Change Management

Hilary provides a wealth of good advice on how to support change management. One which I found especially useful was her own planning tool on supporting change. Named SPACES, you can see the visual framework below.

SPACES planning tool for change

SPACES is a planning tool developed by Hilary Scarlett to help communicators navigate organizational change. The six central elements can either positively or negatively impact on employee reaction during a change in the workplace.

Hilary outlines six key factors that can push people to either see the change as a threat or as a reward. She then outlines the impact that a shift in either direction will have on behavior.

The six elements are:

  1. Self esteem – the feeling of importance relative to others.
  2. Purpose – having a sense of direction, meaning and usefulness.
  3. Autonomy – the perception of having control over events, being able to make choices and having your voice heard.
  4. Certainty – being able to predict what will happen and how to respond.
  5. Equity – the notion of fairness and transparency, especially during times of change.
  6. Social Connection – feeling connected to others, especially as part of a group.
  • The Role of Communicators in Change Management

The good news is that we communicators have a key role in any change project. People want information, and the sooner they get it, the better it is for their level of certainty.

We need to be the people who provide that certainty, through providing information and positioning change in a way that doesn’t infer what we are doing is wrong.

Some of Hilary’s key suggestions are putting in place regular communications timings (which supports our need for consistency and predictability), supporting the organization’s ability to understand employee insights through engagement and dialogue, guiding leadership on messaging and how to deliver this messaging through visuals and narratives, and creating a sense of purpose for everyone to support.

I’m going to end on this note. if you want to know more, then go out and grab a copy of Hilary’s book, Neuroscience for Organizational Change. You can thank me later!

One thought on “How Psychology Promotes Organizational Change – A Guide by Hilary Scarlett

  1. Alex – thanks for sharing this. It’s a great summary of the presentation. Thanks too for spreading the word – all comms professionals will benefit from understanding more about behavioural science and from applying it to their work. Neuroscience proves very persuasive with even them most and sceptical hard-nosed of leaders.

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