Research shows we only change when there is a real urgent need. The need can be avoiding pain and/or seeking pleasure. When I read "Soft-Wired", from Michael Merzenich (the researcher who wrote the first articles about brain plasticity) it is showing that we are copycats in our behaviour, 95% of our day is done on automatic pilot, we have the same procedure for getting up, have a coffee, tea or orange juice for breakfast, we shower and brush our teeth in the same way, with the same toothpaste etc. I wonder, do you even know how to brush your teeth in a different way? We wear the same kind of clothes when we go to work. Drive or go the same route everyday to our work, and do mainly the same things at work. Coming home, we do our same habit over and over again. How much of it is really new and how many different things do you cook or eat? When did you just pick a page from a cookbook and prepared what you found there?
Please do not get me wrong, this is great and essential. Our brain consumes 24% of the energy we use daily, so if it had to do everything new everyday it could require more than 50% of energy and we would had no energy left for something else.
Just think about this, when people are depressed or heavily anxious, when their brain does not stop processing and they think about the topic day and night, they are most of the time depleted from energy. And how do you feel when you have a stressful day at work or with the kids?
So having procedures and habits is a great way of our brain to use the energy efficient and effective. Our brain is amazingly super organised in transferring repeating things we do or think from the neo-cortex, our "conscious brain" to the limbic or even cerebellum brain so it becomes a sub/unconscious automatic habit.
How does this work? Imagine you are driving a car, you don’t think how to steer, give gas or brake, your hands and feet go automatically. For one moment now just imagine your partner or a friend is driving and you are sitting next to him/her, and your partner/friend is driving just to fast to your opinion and just to close to the other cars, you do not feel totally comfortable with it and then....... a car brakes in front of you... What does your right foot do? Yes, it tries to step on the brake! Does that make sense? No, it does not, because there is no brake in the passenger site, but that is how our subconscious mind takes control and that is how it does it best to let us survive. It is a thousand times stronger than our conscious mind and also faster in responding. By the way, everything that is stored in our subconscious mind has a good reason; we learned it sometime in the past because it was useful on that moment in time.
Do you know the story about “the 19th research about the frog and the slowly boiling water"? Maybe you might have heard of it.
They did a horrible experiment (in my and the frogs' opinion) with a frog in a pan, filled with water on a stove. When the researchers increased really slowly the water temperature, the frog stayed in the water until it died. When they placed a frog in hot water or increased the temperature fast it jumped out right away.
And there is where our human brain meets "the frogs' brain": when there is a slow incremental increase of unpleasantness, whatever that is, if it happens slow enough, the brain adjust to that new unpleasantness and accepts it as the new standard.
Just imagine all the changes all the new routines that we incrementally accept.
How many of us accept that we gained weight? Of course we have reasons or maybe excuses: metabolism changes when we get older, we sport less because we have work/kids, we eat different etc. And in the end we do not really change to do something about it but just adjust to it, and this becomes the new norm, the new routine. I think we can recall an evening of fun and somewhere at the end of the evening we had the feeling of... "wow!...maybe I had one too much". Most of us will not finish 15 beers/wines or gin-tonics in 30 minutes but we can drink that big amount when we take the entire evening, slowly one by one - by the way, with almost the same effect the day after as having them in 30 minutes-. And nobody starts smoking with 1 pack of cigarettes a day, we start with a couple and the number increases slowly.
So, slow incremental change sticks. How is it with a rapid change?
How strong are those old habits when we do a rapid change and do not ingrain that new habit? Just think about when you fell in love. When we start a relationship we have all time of the world for our new love, texting, calling, seeing each other at strange times, etc., and after some time we fall back in the "old us" our old habits we had before and we start forgetting giving attention, text only the needed things like a shopping list or that we are coming home.
And yes, in our job and with our team we do the same.
Think of the business plans we produce every year. We prepare a motivating outdoor session, hire some expensive consultants to help us out, and almost everybody is motivated, at least during that event and the week after. We say to ourselves: "Yeah! This year will be different this will be a great year, new challenging targets, we redefined the values, checked the responsibilities and task forces are being set". And what does happen in more than 80% of the cases? That after a couple of months all of this is forgotten and we do the same thing as the previous years. And if the results are no too bad we think we did a good job.
If you really put the business plans and results of the last years next to each other what would you discover? Most of the times at the end of the year nothing really changed apart from time.
Business wise, there are times when things go slowly down or stay the same whilst the competition or the market is doing better than us, and slowly we become less competitive. How many times do we keep on doing the same thing instead of real innovation? Our sales force sales slowly becomes less active and is seeing the same clients every time and call it account management and do less prospecting. Just have a look into the procedures you have in your team, your company, how they slowly but constantly grow. The number of CC you have in emails and the number of emails. The meetings you have started in a with good results, slowly become a procedure and mandatory meetings and they slowly lose their effectiveness. Most mangers, leaders, sales managers I talk to, say that at least 50% of the meetings are ineffective or even useless but they are maintained. They sit in like the frog in the slowly heated up water.
Most leaders or managers will start running on routine after 3 years, could this be the reason for job rotation every 3 years?
So YES, we have somewhere "a frog brain" when it concerns change.
UNLESS ......we take action!
When do we really change or take action?
When something becomes URGENT, and even more when it becomes an issue, a REAL issue, then we take action to avoid the pain of the consequences. Just think of the Mintzberg Urgent/Important grid and most of the action we do are in the square urgent/important.
Having said that, just think of the companies that run out of business or had extremely hard times because they acted "like the frog because they stayed in the water to long", although the issue was urgent: Blackberry, Motorola, Nokia, Microsoft and their smartphones, Eastman Kodak, Dell, Sun Microsystems, General Motors almost went bankrupt, Reader's Digest, Sony once a leading company and is now a follower, etc.
And in our personal life, only when we have serious health issues because of our life style, we start changing, or when our partner is leaving us or betraying us we start to realise we forgot to nurture the relationship.
What usually happens is that the external consultants come in when "the water have come up to their necks", so, when the sales or revenue is really dropping, when the cost are sky high or innovation produces only failures. It is then when "Reorganisation, Rebranding, Reinventing programs" are designed and executed and "we go on a diet", making people redundant. When do coaches come in? In 90% of the time when someone is not performing, not when the employee is doing good.
Although the book "From good to great" is already written a 15 years ago, the true investment in doing so, is pitifully seldom done. And to make it worse, because we do not take the real actions, we create an environment of continuous stress and walking on our toes, by keeping the issue alive. We act like the frog in the water that has become warmer, we sit still hoping it will go better if we do not move.
Why do we need urgency and don't we just go for the right things to do when we still have time?
Seeking for happiness, a flourishing life or a company that runs smoothly with real attention for bringing out the best of the employees - now we call that "engagement" and 20 years ago "empowerment" - and connecting with the source of their existence, the clients, does not bring instant gratification. Result of investing in people, our loyalty programs takes time to show result and are sometimes hard to make tangible. So after our first great action we start a state of procrastination or even worse neglecting the change and falling back in the old unconscious habit. Just think of all the diets you can find, they all promise results in 2-6 weeks - instant gratification/success -, if it says 1 year nobody would go for it.
How can we OVERCOME our "frog brain" attitude?
Thousands of self help and consultancy books are written about this. Their advice is to seek for a sense of urgency, take decisions and most important take action. But how to keep on doing the action and overcoming the downfall in our old subconscious habits ?
When we know that what is for us URGENT now, most of the times overruns what is IMPORTANT for the long run.
So how do we really train our "frog mind"?
It sounds too easy to be true: "creating a huge passion/desire for the specific development", just as how we learned to walk. We had a innate desire to learn to walk, we stood up and fell down, we stood up again and fell down again. We fell down and stood up again for approximately 1000 times before we could walk. That means we have to find and internal or external "carrot or passion", that pushes us to do it again and again and again, until it becomes a subconscious habit. And besides that passion or desire, to develop a belief system that is so important that is provides the leverage for giving priority to important above urgent or old habits. This means no superficial decisions as "lets have a 1 day workshop in a nice hotel full of presentations" but it means "real soul searching within yourself, your team and the company, what are really our inner drivers, values, beliefs" and not the ones we parrot. As they said in the old Rome 2000 years ago "were are you willing or live or to die for?"
Besides that, the methodology of how we wake up every morning, an alarm, can be essential assistance. I so not assume anybody really likes his/her alarm in the morning but it is an eternal push to do something. That means having an alarm/change agent that has the authority to push the desired change/development and is able to pull/push us out of our comfort zone. Pitifully I see to many times that many internal or external consultants/project managers who don’t have it or dare it. To really be the alarm and even when there is a snooze give an alarm again. It makes sense somewhere, it means really to confront. Why is this not done? There are obvious and understandable reasons, it does not mean that they are the right reasons, because it could damage the relationship or to say better their revenue or their job. How many consultants do you know who dare to say to the CEO that they are part of the issue and that really need to be an example in the change and then also dare to say no to their assignment if there is no commitment from the top management? I have seen to many projects where they started in the hope that top management would join the change when they would witness it. Result frustrated middle management and blue color workers.
Or clients who are anxious, depressed or have weight issue hope that if they read a self help book will solve everything.
So we need someone who acts like a specialist in a hospital who does not do sugar coating, because he/she has one goal: to help us. They confront the brutal facts and urge for action and if you do not follow their advice, they say that is okay and don't work with you anymore. They do not work with patients who do not follow up there advice.
Having said this, to make a conclusion the good news is: WE CAN CHANGE, we proved it so many times. We learned to walk, learned to read and write, learned to drive, learned how to use a smartphone, we stepped out of an relationship or job, moved houses or cities and more.
So what do you need more to do a "soul search", tap-rooting in your abilities, have an "alarm" and make this year the best year!? What are you waiting for?
I would love to hear from you!
professor organisational behavioural leadership at the IE Business School and clinical hypnotherapist/psychotherapist