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How do you feel when you hear the words ‘change management’?

How do you feel when you hear the word ‘change’?

I don’t know about you but when I hear the first, it makes my heart sink. It feels cumbersome, laborious, painful – I’m being done-to.

Whereas the second makes me feel positive, upbeat, ready to hear about new possibilities or opportunities to be part of – we’re in this together.

As with everything in work, how we talk to people and the language we use has a significant impact on how people feel about a situation.

Have you seen Despicable Me? There’s a part where Mr Gru gives his Minions a ‘pep talk’ about how money has run out and they should all consider ‘firing up their resume’ to look for something else. Pretty downbeat and done-to. Until one of his adopted daughters offers her piggy bank and then they all, together, give what they can and use what they have to build a space rocket!! Talk about team spirit and engagement! [OK, so their purpose is to steal the moon, which is a bit questionable….but still – great team spirit to make something happen!]

Let’s look at what it’s like at work in the UK then, where we’re not building so many space rockets [please note, purposefully stereotypical situations used for dramatic effect!] –

Company #1
Small engineering firm, been around for years, as have most of their employees who have been there since the doors first opened in 1976! Nothing significantly changes, the work is steady, the leadership style is autocratic and nobody has ever, ever had to leave due to poor performance – and I don’t mean that there are no poor performers in the team!

But the world has caught up with them and they need to implement a new finance system. And the change for them is hard. There’s resistance. There’s ‘this new system just isn’t as good as the old system’. There’s a general heels-in-the-ground mindset. There’s disengagement.

Company #2
Medium sized manufacturing business. Been around a good 15 years. Recent strong results are allowing them to maximise that opportunity by investing in some new ventures that will put their eggs in more than one basket, making the business more secure long-term. The leadership style is democratic so that, although the CEO will take the ultimate decision on big stuff, he listens to what his team have to say about theirs and their teams’ realities.

With all these new ventures coming into play, and a desire to only increase headcount where absolutely necessary, the team flow to where the work needs to be done. Engaged in what’s trying to be achieved, they get the importance and are keen to support the business becoming a greater success.

Company #3
Large, blue chip business, also been around a long time. Has its good years and bad years, but always comes out the other side of the bad years with something new to keep customers coming back. Surprising really, because its size and complexity mean that there are many imperfections in how things happen. Old processes clash with new systems and in the middle are people who know neither very well. The leadership style is paternalistic and although there is definitely more participation than in previous years, there’s an expectation among long-serving employees that the business will look after them – both while employed and after they retire.

Although some parts of the organisation have kept up with the times, and changed to do so, there are pockets where you feel you’ve walked back into the 1970’s and some of the people look as though they’ve sat in the exact same seat since then. Seemingly oblivious to the world moving on around them. Change for them is hard. And the need for a restructure so they can work more efficiently is causing significant upset and worry about what this could mean for their future, what if their work changes, what if they don’t know what to do anymore. What if they need to move seat!!!!

I don’t think I need to ask which camp we’d rather be in!

So, the thing that fascinates me is about the mindset. The brain activity that’s going on for some people and not for others, which means that change is either HARD or FANTASTIC!

I’m not an expert but I’ve picked up on a few things that point towards reasons for the different experiences.

I was reading an article called “Paying Attention to Change” in the IEDP Developing Leaders publication ( In this it tells us that our brains are naturally inclined to focus on ‘doing stuff’ that delivers a result. Whether we’re doing that stuff because we choose to (top down), or whether we do it because something has ‘made’ us, some kind of stimulus (bottom up).

The ability to focus the brain using a top down approach is needed if changes in the brain are going to occur – changes that mean a new pathway is created. But this degree of focus can also cause us to shut out other things that are going on, and can lead to inflexibility. To be successful, we therefore need to be able to have focus and flexibility, to switch our attention to what is important at any given time – and often rapidly.

Building up this ability, and creating strong pathways in the brain to do this more easily, requires repetition and practice – ongoing. Mindfulness is one way this can be done.

So, the people who struggle with change, are likely to be expert at top down focused attention but to such an extent that other factors have been shut out, and the pathways in their brain for flexibility are under developed – if there at all.

In addition to this, there’s our Reticular Activating System (RAS) which acts as a filter for all the sensory inputs we receive so that we are only aware of those that are important to us. Without this it would be information overload! We can programme our RAS to focus on what we choose – so when you start thinking of buying a new car, suddenly the world is full of adverts for cars, other people buying cars, more things on your current car breaking! And sometimes our RAS has been subconsciously programmed – every time I go to that store I get bad service, therefore every time I go to that store my RAS brings every bit of bad service to my attention.

Again, the people who struggle with change may well have their RAS programmed to say change = bad, be afraid!

Which leads me on to “The Chimp Paradox” by Dr Steve Peters ( which teaches us about our limbic brain – or our chimp brain. This part of our brain is very primitive and territorial. It likes us to have a troop of chimps around us who we trust and can rely on if things get tough. This helps our chimp (and therefore us) feel safe and calm. But our chimps are emotional things, acting fast on new information, often too fast for our rational brains to catch up. So if something does come along to disrupt our troop’s status quo – boy will that chimp tell you about it!

Again, similar to mindfulness, we can ‘train’ our chimps to behave in a much more civilised manner! But do most people do this?

So, all those people in Company #2, I guess they’ve got well behaved chimps, well programmed RASs and well established pathways of focus and flexibility! Shall we all go and work there?

In reality, we’re not all in that place, and change is going to keep happening in one form or other – even if it’s a change to get your organisation better at dealing with change! So next time think about –
• What’s the cultural and leadership context of your business – how involved do people feel with what you’re up to?
• What will it mean for them? Will this help make things better? If not – why are you even doing it?
• How do people feel today? Are they comfortable, settled, in a nice troop? Or are they ready to spring into action when the next opportunity to do things differently comes along?
• How do you want people to feel about what’s changing? What words can you use to help this feel positive, rather than a Mr Gru pep talk? How can you make this the start of re-programming everyone’s RAS to help them feel more positive about the word ‘change’?

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