The most forward-thinking, valuable and profitable 21st Century businesses operate as “networked” organisations.
They nurture autonomous, collaborative teams. Decisions are made at all levels to remove bottlenecks. Feedback loops allow organisations to learn and improve continuously, to deliver relevant and timely messaging and to respond quickly to shifts in market expectations.
However, for most large organisations, this is far from the reality. Most still operate across disconnected and autonomous silos: business, IT, marketing, brand, HQ and regional offices rarely talk, let alone collaborate. The “holistic enterprise” is an alien concept to most employees.
The journey to the networked enterprise involves significant changes to traditional mindsets, attitudes and behaviours. Embedding new ways of working is notoriously difficult. But why?
The Drive To Survive
We like to think that people are in control of their reactions, that decisions are conscious and rational, but neuroscientists, behavioural economists and social physicists have proved otherwise. We are far less in control of our actions than we like to think. Understanding how decisions are really made helps us understand why change is so hard, and how to successfully support it.
Humans are essentially wired to do two things: seek reward (food, warmth, company) and avoid threat (being eaten by powerful predators).
The “reward state” is controlled by the limbic system: the part of the brains that enables the considered, collaborative and connected thinking and behaviours that are core to the evolution of human society.
Avoiding the myriad predatory threats, on the other hand, was key to the survival of prehistoric man. The brain evolved to scan continuously for threat. When threat is perceived, the limbic brain hands over to the reptilian brain, the primal animal root. Neurochemicals are automatically released that trigger responses that get our bodies ready to fight or flee. In the threat state, the body is ill-at-ease, defensive. The ability to think clearly, to remember, to make decisions is impaired. Communication, collaboration and considered thinking are less important when facing the threat of being eaten by a sabretoothed tiger.
Technology: The Organisational Predator
These automated responses are still very much in action today. Neurochemicals are pumped into our bodies every time we are presented with any significant change or anything that looks or feel radically different. This response kicks in every time employees are faced with a new technology, new leadership, new ways of working.
Faced with change, employees start to see threats even where there are none. They become distracted as they figure out how the threat might affect them. They are less able to focus or think clearly. Memory, decision-making and productivity is impaired. They become emotional and stressed, their immune system suffers, all of which further impacts ability to perform.
To make matters worse, the threat response is contagious. When one person reacts to threat, the people around them react to their changing behaviour. Presenting your workforce with a constant raft of leadership-led change initiatives can have a profoundly negative affect on organisational efficiency.
The psychological and physiological responses to change manifest themselves as resistance. People may resist using the new technology, miss meetings, complain to colleagues and decide to find pastures new, but the result is the same: your transformation project becomes one of more than 70 percent that fail.
And in the connected age, employee frustration does not stop at the borders of your organisation. Employee advocacy can be just as valuable, or damaging, to your brand as customer advocacy.
Technology Is Not A Solution
Too many companies scratch their head, frustrated that another technology solution has failed to hit targets, then buy another license for another solution that promises to take away their pain. But they are missing the point. Technology is not a solution, it is an enabler. Communications hold the key to unlock its potential by minimising resistance and maximising organisational efficiency.
Communication Is The Key To Success
The key to successful transformation is in the hands of the communications department. People are most receptive to change when they in the reward state; when they are engaged. Our challenge as communicators is how to keep the limbic brain engaged, and to stop those damaging defence responses kicking in.
The keys to engagement are respect, autonomy, connectedness, fairness, certainty and empathy. The most effective change strategies harness the power of these triggers, and ensure employees feel part of the change, not victims of it.
In the most successful engagement strategies, opinions are valued, voices are heard, employees feel part of transparent decision-making processes. Facebook harnesses this knowledge in its weekly “town halls” , where Mark Zuckerberg himself expects--and provokes--constructive criticism from all levels of his organisation. The marketing department take full responsibility for provoking healthy discussion and organisation-wide engagement.
In Silence Lies Fear
Certainty, fairness and transparency are key drivers for engaged employees. As an example of how companies are harnessing this knowledge, Zappos makes organisational data accessible to everyone across the business, across all levels, all of the time. Nothing is hidden. If a challenge manifests itself, everyone can see the emerging problem and work together to solve it--for the good of the enterprise. In an open, transparent organisation, there is no fear of the unknown.
Creative communicators should turn data into clear, consistent messaging to reinforce this transparency and silence the threats in the shadows.
People are most productive and collaborative--and most receptive to change--when they feel part of a community working toward shared, collective and clearly defined goals. The communication of collective goals and shared vision is the responsibility of the marketing department.
Empathy is not a nice-to-have in the “networked” organisation, it is key to the necessary levels of cross-cultural and cross-organisational communications and collaboration. Empathy engenders trust and forms bonds.
Communications strategies should encourage, reward and acknowledge empathetic communications, and provide ways to “nudge” people at all levels and all functions to understand each other better.
Crossing The Chasm Of Change
Let’s check back to the reality of how most organisations operate today.
Employees are expected to keep their opinions to themselves and to toe the line. Leaders see knowledge as power, and keep it locked away from prying eyes. Decisions are made behind closed doors and delivered without even a nod to the people most affected by them. Most leaders find the idea of employee autonomy uncomfortable, and most employees are accustomed to doing what they are told. Sharing and cross-silo collaboration is not incentivised, and is often discouraged.
Current operating models are fraught with challenges when looking at the world through the lens of neuroscience.
The gap between the current reality of most organisations and the empowered, efficient organisation is wide. Crossing that gaping chasm involves significant changes in attitudes and behaviours across all levels. Behaviour change cannot be bullied or mandated, neither can it be driven by information and impressive statistics. The most effective change strategies are built on a deep understanding of what really makes us tick.