To create the organisation culture you want you have only two levers:
- The quality of people you let in through the front door and
- How you lead them once they are in.
Here is a link to a blog post on point 1, and here is a link to a blog post on point two. The material in the second blog post is written as guidance for the individual, but it applies equally well to other people or groups.
In groups the key to success is first to ensure that you have recruited people who are capable of resilience then to cause leaders to actively work to optimise the focus of the group of employees, as follows:
- From a focus on emotions to a focus on outcomes. Emotion focussed organisations have much lower levels of psychological health than those which are outcomes focussed – oriented to goal achievement.
- From a focus on what we can’t control to what we can control (internal locus of control).
- From a focus on highlighting the negatives and what has gone badly to a focus on positives and what has gone well – gratitude increases resilience.
- From a focus on what has gone wrong to a focus on what we can look forward to and be optimistic about. We can learn optimism, and that increases resilience.
These are all cognitive management techniques which can be shown to increase resilience at the individual and the group level.
Now for a simple neuroscience technique. In 2006 Rock and Schwartz published a ground breaking article on the “neuroscience of leadership” (see link below). They cited neuroscience evidence for the importance of focus and how it can be used in change management and in other aspects of leadership. Their particular emphasis was a focus on the future. So many of the discussions we hear from leaders are focussed on the past. This makes people resistant to change because it activates their fight or flight mechanism and therefore makes them defensive and gives rise to avoidance behaviours, politics and all the other “collateral damage” we get from change management efforts.
The brain is a strange device. It does not in total speed up or slow down very much.
It tends to consume a similar amount of oxygen and glucose no matter what you are doing. The effect of this is that turning on one part of the brain increases the energy consumption of that part which therefore makes it harder to turn on any other parts of the brain. Switching on one brain function tends to switch off others.
This is what Daniel Goleman meant by the “Amygdala Hijack”. When the amygdala is turned on energy floods to feed it, so that the higher brain functions – those which can see the future, for instance – are turned off. Could this explain road rage? I think it does.
The opposite is also true. Turning on the prefrontal cortex by focussing on the future tends to turn off the “old brain” functions – the amygdala, for instance, so the person has less capacity for fear and anger. This is why redirecting people away from telling each other how they feel and toward defining an optimum future and then planning how to get there is such a powerful technique for increasing resilience. It creates optimism and reduces fear and anger.
These neuroscience findings also give rise to some game changing perspectives on leadership which all leaders can benefit from. If you want a resilient workforce consider the following:
- Never talk about change. Why would you focus on the process when what you want is an outcome? If you want really happy customers you should define exactly what this end point looks like (do this in partnership with your employees if you want them to be engaged) and then make plans about how to get there. Telling people that they need to change is a covert insult and will turn on people’s amygdala. Want to test it? Tell someone right now that you think that they need to change and see how they react. Why do we do this so regularly at the group level? It’s just as negative a message.
- Especially don’t talk about culture change. As someone who lives his life in the world of organisation psychology I have no idea where this obsession about culture discussions come from. Is it because we like abstractions? Telling people that they need to change their culture is an overt insult. Instead of talking to employees about an abstraction like culture why don’t we agree specific behaviours we want to see more of and those we want to see less of? People understand and can relate to this. Talking about something as vague as culture often devolves into what people like or don’t like. If I don’t like it it is a culture mismatch.
In short, if you want resilient employees the most effective way to achieve this is to use the most resilient and creative parts of their brains – the prefrontal cortex, for instance, which is the core of initiative and collaboration. At the same time we should avoid triggering the defensive and emotionally negative parts of the brain such as the amygdala. The key is what we as leaders focus on.
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