Leadership and implementing change

A couple of weeks ago, I’d cited recent research that information junkies were literally getting an adrenaline fix from learning. In an article entitled The Neuroscience of Leadership from strategy+business magazine (via Neuromarketing blog), it is apparent that there is something distinctly different about the applications and structure of -for example- lean manufacturing itself that creates optimal learning and ongoing improvement.

…It is now clear that human behavior in the workplace doesn’t work the way many executives think it does. That in turn helps explain why many leadership efforts and organizational change initiatives fall flat. And it also helps explain the success of companies like Toyota and Springfield Remanufacturing Corporation, whose shop-floor or meeting-room practices resonate deeply with the innate predispositions of the human brain.

The article explains that applying recent developments in cognitive science can induce more effective organizational change. [Not mentioned in this article were the concepts of *cognitive behavioral therapy -which has been far more effective than medication and talk therapy at alleviating depression- but it seems to be one and the same.] According to the new research -sweeping old practices and assumptions aside- means first accepting that:

  • Change is pain. Organizational change is unexpectedly difficult because it provokes sensations of physiological discomfort.

  • Behaviorism doesn’t work. Change efforts based on incentive and threat (the carrot and the stick) rarely succeed in the long run.
  • Humanism is overrated. In practice, the conventional empathic approach of connection and persuasion doesn’t sufficiently engage people. (motivating etc)
  • Focus is power. The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain.
  • Expectation shapes reality. People’s preconceptions have a significant impact on what they perceive.
  • Attention density shapes identity. Repeated, purposeful, and focused attention can lead to long-lasting personal evolution.

It would seem that the key to overcoming objections and obstacles -whether it be within ourselves or others- relates to focus and by extension, flow:

Focus: Attention continually reshapes the patterns of the brain. Among the implications: People who practice a specialty every day literally think differently, through different sets of connections, than do people who don’t practice the specialty. In business, professionals in different functions – finance, operations, legal, research and development, marketing, design, and human resources – have physiological differences that prevent them from seeing the world the same way.

Large-scale behavior change requires a large-scale change in mental maps. This in turn requires some kind of event or experience that allows people to provoke themselves, in effect, to change their attitudes and expectations more quickly and dramatically than they normally would…..That is why employees need to “own” any kind of change initiative for it to be successful. The help-desk clerk who sees customers as children won’t change the way he or she listens without a moment of insight in which his or her mental maps shift to seeing customers as experts.

Ownership of the process means that attention density (focus) changes behavior. The problem is one cannot dictate attitudinal changes; one must experience the (cognitive dissonance) and endure the “pain” in order to come full circle. In practice this could mean instituting the change and waiting for attitudes to follow; it’s the only thing that’s ever been proven to work (this explains why and how the families on the wife swapping TV show are induced to adopt change). The research suggests that the path to change is led by cultivating moments of insight -meaning we’re back to the adrenaline rush experienced by information junkies:

For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions. This is true for several reasons. First, people will experience the adrenaline-like rush of insight only if they go through the process of making connections themselves. The moment of insight is well known to be a positive and energizing experience. This rush of energy may be central to facilitating change: It helps fight against the internal (and external) forces trying to keep change from occurring, including the fear response of the amygdala.

This again, reminds me of the possible reasons for the dramatic efficacy of TWI. Training the housewives of America to assume the factory jobs and backbone of US industry during World War II was no small feat; one we’ve yet to repeat. Consider:

Also, given the small capacity of working memory, many small bites of learning, digested over time, may be more efficient than large blocks of time spent in workshops. The key is getting people to pay sufficient attention to new ideas, something the “e-learning” industry has struggled with.

The article is not all theory, suggestions for changing our own behavior or that of others is described as trying to focus on labeling and creating new behaviors rather than focusing on the negative existing behaviors. Apparently, the process is more effective if it facilitates self-insight rather than giving advice or providing direction. Similar insights have been found true in cognitive behavioral therapy in that going over old ground is counterproductive. Have we returned to Socratic method?

Perhaps you are thinking, “This all sounds too easy. Is the answer to all the challenges of change just to focus people on solutions instead of problems, let them come to their own answers, and keep them focused on their insights?” Apparently, that’s what the brain wants. And some of the most successful management change practices have this type of principle ingrained in them. “Open-book management,” for example, has been credited with remarkable gains at companies like Springfield Remanufacturing, because it repeatedly focuses employees’ attention on the company’s financial data. Toyota’s production system, similarly, involves people at every level of the company in developing a fine-grained awareness of their processes and how to improve them. In both of these approaches, in workplace sessions that occur weekly or even daily, people systematically talk about the means for making things better, training their brains to make new connections.

Still, according to the article, the largest barrier appears to be one of control. Needing it. Having to be in charge. It is disheartening that the barriers to dramatic innovation boil down to a control issue:

Few managers are comfortable putting these principles into practice, however. Our management models are based on the premise that knowledge is power. This “transmission” approach to exchanging information (exemplified by lectures and textbooks, where knowledge is “transmitted” to a passive receiver) has always been the prevailing teaching method in academia, including the business schools that many managers attend. Since many executives assume that the teaching methods they endured are the only teaching methods that work …

*On the related note of cognitive behavior therapy and depression:

Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement and former president of the American Psychological Association, recently studied 47 severely depressed individuals. The study involved two unusual components. First, participants focused their attention on things that were proven to increase happiness – specifically, an exercise called the three blessings, in which people wrote down three things that had gone well that day – instead of on the source or nature of their unhappiness, which is where many mental health interventions focus. Second, communities were allowed to form, which encouraged people to pay attention to the happiness-inducing exercises. Depression in 94 percent of the participants dropped significantly, from clinically severe to clinically mild-to-moderate symptoms. The impact was similar to the effects of medication and cognitive therapy combined. Perhaps any behavior change brought about by leaders, managers, therapists, trainers, or coaches is primarily a function of their ability to induce others to focus their attention on specific ideas, closely enough, often enough, and for a long enough time.


  1. victoria kathrein says:

    As a theory this sounds fantastic. But, what kind of focus or innovation can come if you are making small parts for calculators, let’s say. Day in, day out you sit in front of the conveyer belt staring at the tiny little parts. Let’s say you come from a third world country. I think you would be thrilled to have a job, an income, to support your family, etc. But second generation will not feel the same way.

    I am a creative person. But everyday I sit and do accounts payables and receivables. It is pure will power that keeps me from exploding into a million little pieces. My motivation is will power.

    In order to be focused you have to be forced to solve a problem, to think. But what if you are not required to think?

    Oh well. Lunch is over. Back to the bills.

  2. moss says:

    But what if you are not required to think

    Then you are not working in a Lean Manufacturing environment. It sounds like you work in a more traditional environment where you are seen as a “drone” rather than a dynamic, continuously improving Lean team member.

  3. Ruby Gallina says:

    It is a delight to discover this post!

    It is not such a delight to be forced to admit (de-lurking is such a hard thing to do) being one who has taught Organizational Behavior to college students for almost a quarter of a century. (Ouch. That hurt.)

    At the top of the list of greatest surprises in that span of time is the surprising hostility from MBA students when faced with a course called, “Organizational Change and Transformation”. Egads. They hated the very idea. They certainly hated me and the class for making them even think about change. Since then, I have come to respect that attempting significant organizational change is an opportunity for martyrs.

    As long as organizations are organized in the spirit of Frederick Taylor, change and adaptation will be attempted “top down”. It doesn’t work.

    Organizational flexibility and adaptability must come from the bottom up. Those in the higher levels of an organizational hierarchy will figure out very quickly that bottom up change is a threat to their privileged status.

    It takes an incredible commitment by an organizational leader to build a learning organization that will embrace change. How many leaders are willing to yield control? That’s the kind of place where I want to work.

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