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Why leaders subconsciously reject change

When our brain senses that our status is being threatened, our thinking shuts down.  We avoid the person or situation making us feel so uncomfortable, and we often stay away from any activity or idea about which we’re not confident. Worse, we label the other person as “wrong” so we can be “right.”

We don’t necessarily do this consciously. It’s just our brains’ natural response when our status is under attack, say the neuroscientists.

So when  corporate rebels and mavericks challenge an organization’s status quo and executive decisions, leaders’ brains go on high-alert. Their decisions, their plans, their position feel threatened and under attack. The neuroscience research says this threat to status activates the same brain regions as physical pain.

The leaders’ knee-jerk reaction is often to label the people with the fresh new ideas as troublemakers. Or not having enough experience to really know what they’re talking about. And jeez, that kid isn’t even a manager, what could she  know? (See how put downs can make you feel better and restore your status?)

Guess what this reaction does to people with the fresh ideas that you need to lead? They run for the hills. Maybe they try to approach you or another executive again, but you’re likely not to welcome what they have to say.  Through words, tone or body language you broadcast the message throughout your organization: your ideas are NOT WELCOME.

And then you wonder why the culture isn’t more innovative and creative. Why too few people speak up with substantive comments at meetings.  Why it seems like you’re the only one with the answers.

Time to get your brain in line and recognize your “threat” triggers so that you can control them –  instead of them controlling you.

Who needs to change their ways: leaders or rebels?

Some executives have told me that “rebels and change agents need to learn how business works. You can’t just disrupt things and expect everyone to change.”

But should the corporate rebels be the ones to have to adapt their style? Or should leaders find ways to better understand how to control their threat triggers so that they can create a safe, welcoming climate for new ideas?

To me, this is the responsibility of the leader. All people can benefit from understanding and managing what trips them up. But with the prestige and financial compensation of being a leader comes the responsibility for first and foremost managing oneself. So your head is ready to be in the game of leading.

Humility and reappraising

This is why so many great leaders are humble. Humility reduces the status threat. It puts people at ease talking with you. It clears the leader’s mind of emotion so that he or she can really understand what people are saying.

Another way to manage the brain is to reappraise situations that start to trigger your emotions. What’s  the other person’s perspective? What does he want me to understand? What does she want me to do and why?  Look at what’s being said as data and nothing more.

Economic and competitive threats are relentless, causing their own set of threats and associated behavioral responses. But to succeed companies need new ideas and the best ideas are likely to come from the rebels and mavericks inside your own organization.

As a leader, help those people who can most help you succeed. Even if they make you uncomfortable. Maybe especially because they make you uncomfortable.

Help yourself by seeing challenges to the status quo as possibilities not attacks on your position.