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March 28, 2012

Guest Blogger Neesa Sweet: Communicating with the Brain in Mind

Neesa SweetRemember the ad about your brain on drugs?  Picture an egg—your brain-- sizzling in the frying pan and you get the idea.  The sad part is that sorry egg could also be people’s brains when they’re going through change.

It used to be that the only clues we had about what was going on in people’s brains came from injuries and surgical patients.  Today, neuroscientists are able to use imaging tools that let them literally see inside people’s heads.  What they’re discovering has implications in all sorts of contexts—including how we communicate about change.

If you’re a leader or a change communicator, here are a few things to know about your and other people’s brains:

  • Neuroscientists have discovered that physical pain, social pain, pain of others, and imagined pain light up related areas of the brain. This implies that for many people, change is as detrimental as physical pain.
  • Your brain is a competitive field where your prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the center of conscious thinking, logic, innovation and analysis-- vies for energy resources with your limbic system, where unconscious, automatic, survival responses—think fight or flight--reside.  The PFC needs far more energy than the limbic system and is literally “hijacked” when the limbic system grabs resources in times of threat and change.
  • Stress releases chemicals which allow the limbic system to take quick action but actually diminish your brain’s capacity to analyze and innovate.  The PFC, on the other hand, functions well in the presence of “reward” chemicals, which can be stimulated by praise, support, good relationships and other positive events. It takes a lot of reward to overcome even very small amounts of stress, though, which is part of the challenge in helping people work through change.
  • The brain gravitates towards efficient programmed responses—habit—which reside in the limbic system.  People are guided by habit far more often than by thought.  Change challenges habit and requires new responses, further triggering stress and threat. 
  • An organizing principle of your brain is “Minimize Pain-Seek Reward”.  David Rock, a coach, author and founder of the Neuroleadership field has coined the acronym SCARF:  Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.  When any of these are threatened, higher brain functioning shuts down.  Rewards in one area, however, may be able to influence brain resources and chemistry to overcome stress in another.

So what does all this mean for communicators of change?  To start, be aware that your words can cause fear and pain, which can stop people in their tracks.  Your organization needs people able to use their higher thinking functions, not paralyzed by stress.  When creating communications, your attention to SCARF, and a skillful use of framing and association can actually help calm people’s brains.

A reorganization, for example, can threaten someone’s status, and their sense of certainty, autonomy and fairness.  As a communicator or leader you can improve the sense of relatedness between people and their managers—the most important relationship people have in most companies.  Communicators can provide talking points and facilitation guides for managers that help them reinforce people’s sense of worth and value.  Leaders can foster a sense of fairness through processes that are as transparent as possible. 

IT and process changes threaten people’s status, certainty and autonomy because suddenly they no longer know how to do their work.  Actions and communications that acknowledge how people are feeling and that manage performance expectations during the period of transition, can help them feel more certain and protect their status. 

In a merger, people may have their titles changed and their responsibilities increased or diminished.  If a vice-president in one system becomes a director in another, the person’s status may be threatened because of unconscious associations with the title, even though they may actually have more pay or wider responsibility.  Communications that describe and leaders that acknowledge the differences in terminology and culture can help create a sense of fairness that can help people cope.

Which takes us back to that brain in the frying pan:  With some insights from neuroscience, leaders and communicators can help take that brain out of the frying pan and off of the fire.

Neesa Sweet is a coach, communicator, facilitator and consultant in change, engagement, learning and leadership. Formerly Director of Learning and Development for the Sun-Times, she consults to organizations in a wide range of industries. Neesa’s approach is influenced by research in neuroscience, linguistics and complexity science.  She is a Results Certified Coach from the Neuroleadership Institute, and is certified in several assessments including Polarity Management, Myers-Briggs and HBDI. She taught Narrative for Business at the University of Chicago Graham School and is a Master Practitioner of NLP.  Her company, the Braided River Group, is named for rivers which run below glaciers, creating channels around obstacles as they flow.  So, too, she says, effective companies merge their vision and direction with the flexibility they need to succeed. 


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