Our success as change agents is predicated on our ability to meet resistance, shake its paw, and help it see a brighter way. Understanding “threat response” is critical.
After 20 years as a human resources, organizational development and management best practice expert, I felt I knew all the techniques for getting people engaged in their work, motivated toward their goals. People told me I was uncommonly good at it and I had strong success in motivating individuals; turning around performance; building teams and repairing broken ones; and coaching managers and executives on the best ways to build engagement.
Of course no one can expect 100% success every time so I had come to believe that, simply, some people just refuse to be moved.
But I now know that’s not true.
Few people wake up in the morning and say “You know…I think I’ll be unreasonably obstinate today. I’m going to refuse to acknowledge plain facts and resist any attempts by others to help me succeed. Yeah…it’s going to be a great day!”
So why does it seem like so many people ACT that way in the face of change? Well, recent developments in brain science and neuropsychology have given us much greater insight into the motivation behind our behavior.
You’ve heard the sayings: “I’ve got a lot on my mind”. “I was scared silly” or “I was so mad I couldn’t think straight”. It turns out, those sayings are physiologically true.
We now know that:
1. Our working memory can only process so many things at once. Once it’s reached its limit it is literally not able to take in or process more information.
Example: You’re driving home with work on your mind, you notice a knocking in the engine as you pull into the driveway. Upon entering the house, you see the cat box needs to be cleaned and the kids haven’t finished their homework. You then realize you need to get take out for dinner. Do you remember where you left your car keys?
2. We can be cognitively crippled when our brain perceives a threat. When we are scared or mad, our cognitive ability – our ability to think rationally, be creative, take in new information or even understand what someone is telling us – is compromised. Further, when we are in threat mode, our adrenaline is triggered and can cause us to behave in ways we might otherwise not.
Example: You’re presenting in a meeting to your peers and you keep getting interrupted. People are second guessing your data and having side conversations while you try to maintain control of the room. You finally get the meeting back on track when the conference room door opens behind you. You let out an exasperated sigh, roll your eyes and shout “WHAT?” before you realize it’s the CEO stopping into to see your work. (Cringe)
What all this means is that a person may understand that they are being asked to change but be in some level of “threat response” and therefore be either unable to move forward effectively or, worse, be behaving in an unproductive way.
For those of us responsible for guiding individuals through change, it behooves us to understand this phenomenon and be prepared to facilitate through it. Here are some tips:
1. Don’t underestimate the power of venting. Venting actually helps calm the brain’s threat response by giving voice to or acknowledging the perceived threat(s) and its impact on the individual. Like a tea kettle, the key is to turn down the heat (provide some space and time) and let the steam out by venting until the pressure seems relieved.
2. There’s no need to debate the validity of the perceived threats. If an individual perceives a threat – then the threat exists as far as his or her brain’s threat response system is concerned. Acknowledge that it’s real for them and let them vent. Don’t try to “fix” at this point.
3. Once the threats are acknowledged. Ask what the individual would like instead. Success? Confidence? Comfort? Once the ideal end state for them personally is identified, work with them to generate some options for achieving that end state. It could be letting go, being okay with failure, getting help, quitting – anything goes. The idea here is to look to THEIR ideal future and generate choices for getting there.
Remember. It is not possible to directly motivate someone else. You can provide an environment conducive to being motivated and you can provide a framework for someone to use personally to get motivated. But in the end it’s up to them. And then it’s up to you to decide what the consequences are.