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Hit the snooze button on your brain’s alarm system

When we’re exposed to change, our individual behavior is often challenged due to the reactions and influences we are exposed to. Does the changing environment determine our actions and behaviors, where feelings and experiences are internal states that accompany congenital and acquired response patterns? Or do people navigate themselves through their own will and their freedom to choose when exposed to situations and circumstances they want to avoid?

 A well-known example of conditional stimuli and response took place in the early 1900s, when the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) conducted experiments on dogs. He implanted a small tube into the dog’s throat that enabled him to measure the dog’s salivation. He then showed the dog a piece of meat, and the dog salivated more. He rang a bell each time before he fed his dog.

Ivan Pavlov discovered that when, over a short period of time, he let the two stimuli – meat and bell – occur simultaneously, there was a change in the dog’s behavior. As soon as the bell rung, the dog started drooling, even if there was no meat. He discovered that through stimulus, the dog’s natural behavior changed, and concluded he had taught the dog a conditioned response.

John B. Watson (1878 – 1958) continued working on Pavlov’s research. Instead, he focused mainly on children’s behavior, and his goal was to show that the relationship between stimulus and response also applies to humans. His desire was to demonstrate that all behavior has a cause and this can be found in the influences from the surroundings. In one of his experiments, he caused an 11-month old baby, Albert, to fear soft cuddly toys by making a very loud noise whenever Albert touched a toy rabbit. After a while, Albert’s fear of the noise became linked with a general fear of cuddly toys. He had become afraid even when no noises were made.

When companies are undergoing changes, our individual behavior based on the reactions and influences we are exposed to will be challenged. One can ask whether it is the changing environment that determines our actions and behaviors, where feelings and experiences are internal states, which accompany congenital and acquired response patterns. Or do people navigate themselves through their own will and their freedom to choose if we are exposed to situations and circumstances we want to avoid?

If a manager’s impact is related to motivating the employee, the manager needs to engage a behavior that the employee finds worth emulating. The manager is responsible for changing the employee’s behavior, because it is he or she who wants to remove stimuli. The manager needs therefore to act as a role model and in a manner that the employee responds positively to and wants to imitate. But is it appropriate to establish good behavior and stimulate employees by giving managers the responsibility for these changes? Some believe it is not appropriate, because the employee’s identity is compromised and it places employees in conditions that are adapted to the company’s behavioral standards.

I believe the biggest mistake in a successful change management process is in the time perspective. Changes often take a lot longer than expected and are not absorbed to the desired extent. This is possibly due to the employee needing to find inner strength and realizing that new working conditions could actually provide a larger return in stimulus. Stimuli do cause an effect over a long period, but if the employee can absorb the purpose of the change process, it provides much greater value, both to the company and to the employee.

Resistance to change is often unwillingness in addition to new working conditions. Job comfort is often found in familiar working environments that can be considered as unconscious and automatic. For example, when you ride your bike, you don’t need to think about how to keep balance. This is linked to the brain stem and limbic system of the brain, which controls actions that can be categorized as automatic and unconscious.

This behavior is called a schema, and it refers to a subconscious state of that determines how we behave in everyday work situations. These kinds of schemas cause people to repeat this behavior when they experience new, unfamiliar situations. You act as you are used to and reject new stimuli because the brain follows familiar patterns. The reason for this behavior can be found in the amygdala within the limbic system, which acts as the brain’s alarm mechanism. It is constantly aware of changes in patterns. If something significant changes, amygdala detects this and shuts down the brain’s logic and thinking processes. This creates a bodily tension and causes thoughts of impending danger, which is a condition employees can experience in stressful change processes.

For managers, this theoretical knowledge and the insight into physiological reaction patterns is important when it comes to stimulating employees’ motivation and job satisfaction in a process of change. The more you can prepare your employees to absorb impressions that are perceived as danger signals or unknown conditions, the better the employee will be prepared for the new state. This experience can be achieved by training employees to note what stimuli affect them positively or negatively. You can thus take control of unfamiliar situations and stimulate the brain to be more receptive as the situation is no longer perceived as dangerous.

Using assertive thinking, the employee will be able to gain insight into different aspects of emotions. When the employee dares to feel, he or she can find the balance with the unknown and achieve a state that is more receptive to change. An unfamiliar situation is thus transformed into a situation the employee can cope with and respond to.

One way in which the employee can achieve better balance is to find a source to release energy, positive as well as negative. This serves to calm the amygdala and instead stimulate the hippocampus, which generally regulates the body and allows the mind to create opportunities and solutions.

Increased susceptibility to change is a difficult exercise and does not happen from one day to the other. But it can be trained by exposing yourself to unfamiliar situations unknown and subsequently evaluating positive effects and anything that is perceived as negative. Practice makes perfect.

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Simon Gastel

Simon is keenly interested in how psychological influences, such as motivation and behavior, enhance team performance as well as how change management affects the subconsciousness of employees. Simon has an Executive MBA from Henley Business School.