How to help employees thrive in an age of uncertainty

It’s fairly obvious that our world is in a constant state of flux right now.

Change is the name of the game, and this state of affairs will undoubtedly continue for the foreseeable future. From relentless technological disruption to political upheavals to economic instability, people are feeling more and more uncertain about their place in this unstable world.

One of the areas that concerns people the most, of course, is insecurity about their jobs and the workplace of the future. The 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report, recently released by Deloitte’s, highlights a number of ways in which this fear is manifesting in the workplace. For example, out of more than 11,000 respondents, 49 per cent indicated that their companies have done nothing to help older employees find new careers as they age. This puts a significant portion of the globe’s population at risk, as people need to retire much later because of our increasing life spans. In addition, by 2020, 37% of organisations expect a growth in contractors, 23 per cent in freelancers, and 13 per cent in gig workers. This puts job stability even more in doubt as companies can start to hire temporary workers with specific skills on a job-by-job basis.

Delving into employees’ reactions to change

Neuroscience, which focuses on how the human brain works, can provide a very interesting framework for interpreting why employees feel so threatened by all these changes at work, and what happens to their productivity and motivation when they do. Neuroscience tells us that the central organising principle of the human brain, which applies to all areas of our lives, is to maximise reward and minimise danger. Believe it or not, the brain scans for threat every five seconds, so fear is a significant driving force in how we interact with the world around us. It is this response that has kept humanity alive for so long. This is a biological remnant of our caveman beginnings, when physical danger from other people, animals, and the elements were a very real threat to your life.

Although these systems in our brains are now very seldom activated by physical threat, they are still triggered when a social threat is detected. The fear of uncertainty in our jobs creates the same reactions in the brain and body as the fear of being attacked by a lion in the wild. As humans, if we feel like we’re in danger, then our brain is put into what we call a threatened state, which can be triggered by any of the five areas of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness (SCARF ®). Being in a threatened frame of mind has a very negative effect on our capacity to solve problems, make decisions, and collaborate – all vital for ensuring a profitable, productive workforce.

The uncertainty around work:

• Threatens an employee’s Status, as their value in the workplace and as a productive member of society comes into question.
• Means that Certainty is no longer guaranteed for employees, as they wonder whether they will have a job in the next five years.
• Causes employees to feel as though they are losing their Autonomy because they cease to feel in control and think that they may not have options.
• Threatens an employee’s Relatedness as they believe that they don’t belong anymore.
• Triggers a sense of Fairness in employees as they feel as though they may not be treated equally.

Finding the positive in change

One of the ways in which the world of work changes in response to this unpredictable world is shifting organisational cultures, which requires a change in behaviour from employees. When getting employees’ buy-in in terms of this culture shift, companies should bear in mind three things:

1. The brain has an extremely limited capacity for change. Did you know that the brain is only capable of two hours of conscious thought a day? Because this limited capacity is often drained when we receive new information, many of our day-to-day actions are governed by learnt behaviour. Think about it – much of what we do is automatic, such as driving to work, sending emails, and attending meetings. We simply wouldn’t be able to survive if we had to use our limited conscious thought for everyday actions at all times.

If you want your employees to adapt easily to changes, make sure these changes are simple and broad, so that they can resonate on some level with every employee and can easily be assimilated into their unconscious. Having lengthy three-day strategy planning sessions to discuss changes will only overwhelm and alienate your employees, and this is often where traditional organisational change practices fail.

A good example is the recent work The NeuroLeadership Institute did with Microsoft in transforming their leadership principles. Previously, Microsoft had over 100 competencies linked to leadership, which employees were finding it hard to relate to. We guided Microsoft to rather focus on three big ideas as their leadership principles: Create clarity, generate energy, and deliver success. These big ideas are simple, can be easily applied in various contexts and, most importantly, are easy to recall and so can be actioned.

2. Bias helps our brains to cope. Because our brain capacity is finite, it takes little mental shortcuts to limit its cognitive load. This is why so many successful people have set routines – it means they don’t have to devote a lot of thought to the unimportant things and can conserve their brain power for when they need it most. Bias categorises our past experiences so certain types of decision are associated with a certain shortcut or bias. One of the most common shortcuts results in us not valuing resources that are further away in distance and in time. For example, in bi-annual performance reviews, managers often consider recent performance as more significant than performance in the preceding months. Although this mental shortcut helps to limit the cognitive load on the manager’s brain, it can result in them making ineffective decisions.

In times of change there is a greater demand on our brains, so we are more prone to rely on biases as mental shortcuts to help us make decisions. Therefore, change creates a hotbed for bias. We can, however, diminish these biases by accepting them, labelling them, and changing our processes to take these biases into account.

3. Motivation is crucial to activate behaviour change. We often get caught up in the details of what we do, the ‘how’, and neglect to focus on the ‘why’. Yet focusing more on our purpose actually enables us to be more flexible and adaptable in times of change. This requires higher order thinking, though, which is not always prioritised in times of change, especially not in a threat state. It’s important, then, for employees to play to their social triggers to create a toward state so the brain remains focussed on purpose. This is only possible, of course, if the purpose is broad enough to resonate with an employee’s value system. Purposes like Coca-Cola’s “Refresh mind, body and spirit” and Microsoft’s “Achieve more” are short and adaptable enough for all employees to contextualise them within their own value systems and to remember consistently.

Change is inevitable in the work environment, and it is happening at an increasingly rapid pace on many fronts. Businesses need to keep up so that they remain relevant, and to do this they need their employees to constantly perform at their very best. Having a sound understanding of how individuals tend to react to change, and how to address this, is essential, and neuroscience can prove invaluable here.

Rob Jardine is the Head of Research and Solutions at The NeuroLeadership Institute South Africa.

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