The biology of change

November 23, 2018

What is the best way to motivate employees to change? Traditionally, the change literature has encouraged leaders to ‘create burning platforms’ and to ‘manufacture crisis’ in order to activate employee fear and cure their complacency. The goal was to make the status quo seem even scarier than the changes, which would help overcome employee resistance to change. For many leaders, fear is the go-to emotion when trying to get employees to accept change.

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop summarized the burning platforms concept well in a memo before announcing big changes to the company’s strategy:

There is a pertinent story about a man who was working on an oil platform in the North Sea. He woke up one night from a loud explosion, which suddenly set his entire oil platform on fire. In mere moments, he was surrounded by flames. Through the smoke and heat, he barely made his way out of the chaos to the platform’s edge. When he looked down over the edge, all he could see were the dark, cold, foreboding
Atlantic waters.

As the fire approached him, the man had mere seconds to react. He could stand on the platform, and inevitably be consumed by the burning flames. Or, he could plunge 30 meters into the freezing waters. The man was standing upon a ‘burning platform’, and he needed to make a choice.

We too, are standing on a ‘burning platform’, and we must decide how we are going to change our behavior.

What do you think? Does fear work when it comes to change? Perhaps if you have a year or two to teach employees new behaviors that can be scripted and cascaded throughout the organization, a fear approach to change might work. After all, our ‘fear system’ is a very powerful emotional circuitry. When it is activated, it definitely gets our attention and then focuses that attention like a laser. Throughout time, animals born without fear would not have survived long enough to have children. Today, mammals have ‘fear systems’ because they directed our ancestors’ behavior in a functional way.

Biologically, then, fear focuses us, which is why it can reduce complacency. Moreover, when we experience anxiety from a threat from within our own group (and thus puts us at risk of being excluded), fear urges us to conform to the group and fit in. This is why fear can be useful to both get people’s attention and get them moving in the same direction, even if they do not like the new direction.

Fear has a long history in management. Fear of being evaluated worse than others, of losing social status, of not receiving a bonus, of losing your job. Fear has enabled organizations to focus employees on repetitive, menial tasks since the Industrial Revolution. Because the goal was to get employees to do exactly as they are told, with as much focus and as little variance as possible. Threat rigidity was not seen as a problem; for scientific management, it was the solution. But today, we are activating the wrong employee emotions with burning platforms and fear.

It is time to introduce the ‘seeking system’.

the seeking system

Just as our brains have emotional systems dedicated to fear, we also have systems dedicated to excitement. As I describe in Alive at Work, our seeking systems create the natural impulse to explore our worlds, learn about our environments, and extract meaning from our circumstances. When we follow the urges of our seeking system, it releases dopamine—a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure—that makes us excited, and makes us want to explore more.

The seeking system is the part of the brain that encouraged our ancestors to explore beyond Africa. And that pushes us to pursue hobbies until the crack of dawn and seek out new skills and ideas just because they interest us. The seeking system is why animals in captivity prefer to search for their food rather than have it delivered to them. When our seeking system is activated, we feel more motivated, purposeful, and zestful. We feel more ‘alive’.

Just as the fear system helped our ancestors survive, it is easy to see why an emotional system that motivates exploration and learning would support survival. Nature does not always provide the necessary resources for survival. The seeking system is the motivational engine that each day gets mammals to venture out into the world, even though they ‘do not know what they will find.

And the positive emotions that emerge from the seeking system do not just ‘feel’ good to employees, they help organizations adapt and learn. Twenty years of evidence have shown that positive emotions like excitement and curiosity facilitate innovation and creative problem-solving.

When employees experience excitement, they are more able to organize ideas in different ways, and try on alternative cognitive perspectives. For example, one study of employees in many occupations, working at 73 different companies, showed that the emotions of ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘excited’ were related to employees generating and promoting novel ideas in the workplace.

 the biology of change

For an organization to be agile, lots of employees need to be trying to solve small problems with iterative experiments. Small experiments make change normal, and encourage fast learning because employees get very quick feedback [on] what works and what does not. This approach allows leaders and employees to think about change as ‘small releases’ of experimentation, rather than ‘reactive transformations’ that are painful and expensive.

However, fear is a primal emotional force that inhibits creativity and experimentation. We know that, biologically, the emotion of fear narrows people’s focus, closes them to new experiences, and burns them out if overused. We also know that the positive emotions of the seeking system increase innovation and commitment.

This is not the psychology of change, this is the biology of change.

Leaders in the 21st century need to become skilled at creating burning excitement rather than burning platforms. To create a culture of experimentation and curiosity, leaders need to activate employees’ seeking systems, and stop activating their fear systems. Instead of lighting burning platforms, we need to offer people springboards to play to their strengths and feel excited to try new approaches.

Fear worked when change was slow. The ‘seeking system’ is pre-built for agility.