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In our previous posts on Positive Psychology, we've talked about what positive psychology really is, about how neuroplasticity affects the way we learn, about the essential factors in creating the motivation to change, and about the implications of all this for organizations.

Now we're going to look at the ABCs of positive psychology:  Affect, Behavior and Cognition.

All 3 of these - affect, behavior, cognition - are necessary for change to occur.  They are important individually, but their real power is in the way they intersect and align.

Today, we're going to talk about Cognition.


Cognitive therapists will tell you that you never simply experience an event - you interpret it.  You have a thought about the event, and then you have a feeling about it.  Their premise is that we can change our feelings about an event simply by changing our interpretation of it.  Now, I'm not totally convinced that this works every time, but I do believe that the way we interpret events leads us to conclusions that may or may not be productive for us.

For example, let’s say I’m in a meeting and present an idea.  My boss cuts me off and tells me the idea has no merit.  I’ve got three choices:  I can either interpret his reaction as an indication that I, as a worker, have no merit and shut down for the rest of the meeting (or, in fact, for many subsequent meetings).  Or I can interpret his reaction with curiosity:  “Why do you think that?” or “Which part of my idea has no merit?”  Or I can interpret his reaction as a misunderstanding:  “Maybe I haven’t explained my idea fully - let me try again.”

Option 1 isn’t productive for me - or for my organization, who now has a disengaged (even if only temporarily) employee.  Options 2 or 3, however, reframe the incident in a more positive way for me as an individual, and for the organization, because I remain engaged.  The option I choose is dependent upon the way I’ve interpreted the situation.

How we interpret an incident or situation affects the way that incident is established as a neural pathway.  If we want to change the way we interpret events - if we want to make it less automatic, especially if we’re in the habit of interpreting events in a negative light - we need to create new neural pathways.  I call it ‘getting curious’.  Instead of assuming, for example, that my boss’ comment indicated that I had no merit and consequently retreating into a disengaged state, I can ask questions:  “Let me clarify:  Do you mean that my whole idea has no merit, or that there is a specific aspect of it that won’t work in the context we’re discussing?”


The Three Ms

As individuals and as organizations, we’re often guilty of the Three Ms:  Magnifying, Minimizing, and Making Up.  Magnifying is when we overgeneralize or engage in ‘all or nothing’ thinking.  Minimizing is when we underplay and dismiss the positive (and sometimes the negative) elements of a situation or idea.  Making Up is when we use faulty emotional reasoning or assign blame incorrectly.

When organizations magnify, or overgeneralize around a change (“This is a fantastic change!  It will be so great for everyone!  This will be the miracle we’ve all been waiting for!”) they can end up losing the engagement of their stakeholders.  The truth is that change is rarely universally positive, and when organizations don’t acknowledge this, they lose trust, which can be fatal to a change (and even to the business as a whole).

Companies which minimize the truth of a change in favor of a sanitized, “don’t pay attention to the man behind the green curtain” version of their change strategy will also lose trust and the engagement of stakeholders. 

And organizations which spend more time assigning blame than in fixing mistakes end up creating a blame culture in which CYA memos become more important than actually getting stuff done - which will derail a change initiative faster than you can say “It wasn’t my fault.”

Cognition is all about encouraging individuals - and the organization - to respond more positively when faced with a potentially negative situation, by consciously creating more positive neural pathways, whether in the individuals involved in a change or in the processes which are the organizational equivalent to neural pathways.  It is these conscious changes - combined with Affect and Behavior [insert appropriate links] which will allow the organization to implement and sustain meaningful change over the long term.

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In our previous posts on Positive Psychology, we've talked about what positive psychology really is, about how neuroplasticity affects the way we learn, about the essential factors in creating the motivation to change, and about the implications of all this for organizations.

Now we're going to look at the ABCs of positive psychology:  Affect, Behavior and Cognition.

All 3 of these - affect, behavior, cognition - are necessary for change to occur.  They are important individually, but their real power is in the way they intersect and align.

Let's talk about Affect first.


Typically, when we think about emotions in the workplace, we think of them as being negative.  We think that 'real professionals' don't bring their emotions to work, and they definitely never reveal their emotions in the boardroom - to do so would be seen as a sign of weakness.

Except that all of us have emotions, and it's not all that easy (or even possible) to leave them at the front door of the office.  We may experience anger, frustration or fear as a result of something that happens at work; we may also experience more positive emotions like joy, satisfaction or excitement.

All of these emotions are giving us important clues about ourselves and our situation, and if we pay attention to them, rather than doing our best to suppress them in the name of 'professionalism', we might succeed in using them to our advantage.

When an organization is going through change, it's often the negative aspects of emotions which are most talked about:  Those who oppose the change, those who challenge the change, and those who resist the change.  But even these negative reactions to change provide important information to the organization.

We don't always focus on the positive emotions associated with a change, but I think it's important to pay just as much attention to them as we do to the negative emotions.

Did you know that 80% of individuals who experience some kind of trauma actually experience post-traumatic growth, not post-traumatic stress?  That's a good endorsement of our inner strength and resilience.  However, we most often hear about the 20% who suffer from PTSD.  Now, I'm not minimizing that 20% - their experience is real and difficult.  But it's interesting that we don't focus on the majority who experience something more positive - and it leaves many of us with the notion that there is only one way to respond to trauma (PTSD) when in fact many of us respond much more positively.

When we examine PTSD and PTG (post-traumatic growth), we see that it's often a single event which leads to either one.  Remembering what we learned about neuroplasticity, we know that a single experience creates a new neural pathway in the brain.  When that channel is seen as negative, we end up with PTSD; when it's seen as positive, we end up with PTG.

We know that a single negative experience in our work life can set up a negative pathway that lasts (all it can take is one manager, early in your career, telling you that you'll "never rise to a senior leadership position" to change your career aspirations forever).  But if that's true, can a single positive experience in our work life have a similar outcome?  Can it create a channel that will permanently increase our well-being and a positive response to challenges?  The answer is yes.  Sure, it depends on the experience - but it also depends on what we do with it.


Reinforce positive experiences

When something bad happens at work - someone yells at  you, you make a mess of a presentation in front of the whole team, etc. - we tend to replay it in our heads over and over again, which of course reinforces the negative pathways the experience created.  But when was the last time you replayed a positive experience over and over again?

Many of us are taught to downplay our successes ("Don't get cocky!" or "No one likes someone who's full of themselves!"), so we tend to move on from positive experiences faster than we do from negative ones.  But there's nothing to stop you from replaying a positive experience to yourself.  Journaling is a fantastic way to do this:  By taking the time to describe the experience to yourself and write it down, you're reinforcing the positive neural pathways that were created, and making it part of your personal narrative, which will enhance the results.

Another way to fortify positive experiences is simply to take the time to do so.  In 2006, scientists demonstrated that rats who were given time to rest and 'hang out' ended up learning a maze faster than rats who were simply forced to repeat the (unsuccessful) attempts over and over again.  As humans, giving ourselves sufficient downtime is critical both to the creative process and to allowing us to fortify our positive neural pathways.


Affect and change management

How does all of this relate to change management?  Well, we can deny the existence of emotions in the workplace all we want, but the truth is that when change happens, it always generates emotions in the individuals required to carry out and live with that change.  If we can acknowledge the negative emotions, we can do a better job of managing their consequences. More importantly, if we can harness the positive emotions, we can use them as powerful tools to create real and lasting change that delivers the results we want.


Next time, we'll talk about the B in the ABCs of change:  Behavior.

Published in News

In our previous posts on Positive Psychology, we've talked about what positive psychology really is, how neuroplasticity affects the way we learn, and about the essential factors in creating the motivation to change.

Today we're going to look at the impliations of all this on organizations.

Individuals and organizations

In many respects, organizations ask themselves the same change-related questions that individuals do:  What is my motivation for change?  Do I really want to change?  Does my interest in changing outweigh the perceived effort required to change?

However, these questions are asked both by the organization and by each individual affected by whatever change is being introduced.  If the organization says "We want to become a more nimble organization," this has implications both for the organization as a whole and for each individual involved in the change.

Remember, if the subconscious doesn't agree wtih the change, it won't happen.  In organizations, the 'subconscious' can be seen as individual employees.  So if the organization says that becoming more 'nimble' means 'hiring more temps who we can fire at will', the organization risks alienating existing employees, who start to feel that the organization no longer values a commitment to the organization.  That doesn't mean this change won't work - it just means that management needs to speak openly about the reasons for these temps and how the process will work.

Motivation for organizations

As we discussed earlier, motivation to change requires that the desire to change is greater than the perceived effort required to make that change.  Without sufficient passion, change is difficult even when it doesn't require a whole lot of effort:  "They tell me that spending 15 minutes changing my settings on this CRM system will do something, but I dunno...I've kind of gotten used to it now."

At the same time, when the perceived effort is too large, it can be hard to generate sufficient passion to make it seem worthwhile:  "I know the existing CRM system isn't perfect, but now I have to sign up for a 5-day course to learn the new system!  Ugh.  Don't they know I have work to do?"

In both cases, senior leadership has good reasons for wanting the change - a more efficient CRM system means better sales processing, better customer service, and ultimately a more productive sales cycle - but in neither case have they communicated these reasons effectively.  The result is that while the organization may be motivated to change, the organization's subconscious - the individuals involved - isn't.  Which means that the change won't happen, or won't happen effectively.

Emotions of any kind are a big part of change.  They're often disregarded in favor of a focus on the technical aspects of change - the training, the processes, the expectations - but it's important to remember that building positive emotions will provide the momentum to move the change forward, while negative emotions (or a lack of emotional engagement) will have the opposite effect.  The only way to effect change within an organization is to leverage the ABCs of positive psychology:  Affect (emotions), behavior and cognition.

Next time, we'll delve into these ABCs.


NEXT:  Part V - The ABCs of Positive Psychology



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Last week I got a call from a colleague:  "Well, it's happened again," she sighed.  "My prospective client just spent $2.5 million on a new accounting system to unite their global operations, but they told me that my $50,000 change management strategy - to make sure the system is implemented effectively - is too expensive."

If you're reading this, you've probably experienced the same thing, either as a consultant or as a change leader within an organization.  You watch senior leadership spend millions on a great idea - and then watch as that idea fails to launch because someone thought the implementation of that idea suddenly seemed 'too expensive'.

But here's the thing:  Change handled badly costs more money - because it's never over.

The problem is that the cost of badly-managed change is never properly quantified.  When a good idea goes wrong, there is never any shortage of excuses:  "The market wasn't ready," or "The marketing strategy wasn't effective," or "The technology never worked properly."  But rarely does anyone - well, outside of the change management consultants, who by that time aren't in the room - suggest that maybe the problem was simply that the change process wasn't managed by a professional.

Change Architecture, or Change Management, isn't sexy.  Neither is your electric bill.  But, like electricity, change management makes good economic sense because it enables other stuff to get done.  Here's how change management delivers value:

  • Clarity about the change.  The kind of clarity that means people spend less time asking each other what they think the change means and more time working on their projects and deliverables
  • Clarity about the direction.  So the organization's top performers don't put 'update my resume and call a recruiter' at the top of their to-do list, instead of the tasks they're paid to do
  • A communication plan with clearly articulated goals.  So leaders and employees spend less time interpreting what the change is about and what it means, and more time actually working toward the business goals the change is designed to help achieve
  • Change focus.  One of the biggest risks for big change is a loss of focus - which can mean serious and steep declines in the bottom line.  Without an independent change expert to keep the organization on track, an otherwise-great initiative can become derailed because no one is keeping their eye on the ball
  • Tactical monitoring.  I've written before that it's important for employees - not external consultants - to own the change management process, but bringing in a third-party change management expert to oversee the tactical implementation of a change will mean that fewer balls get dropped

You think you can't afford a change management consultant?  In my opinion, you can't afford not to hire one.  Without a change management expert, you'll end up spending more money than you planned, without getting the results you wanted - and you won't know how it happened.

Published in News

In our previous posts on Positive Psychology, we talked about what positive psychology really is, and how it's important when you're thinking about change, and about neuroplasticity and how it affects the way we learn.

Today we're going to look at how this applies to the motivation to change.

motivation to change

Neural pathways by any other name...

All organizations have neural pathways - but we call them 'processes' or 'the way we do things around here'.  As with neural pathways, processes tend to be self-reinforcing.  That may be because they're official and written down, or because they are part of the unwritten, accepted culture - but they're still self-reinforcing.  When they're working well, they become stronger and that can be a good thing for the organization, but they can make it harder to change something which is entrenched within the organization.

Motivation to Change

Dr. Ellen Langer, a noted Positive Psychologist, conducted a study in which she asked study participants if they wanted to change from being rigid, gullible or grim.  She asked each participant if they valued consistency, trusting and seriousness - and those who said yes had the most difficulty changing.  This is because thought I might say I don't want to be so rigid, if I value consistency it will be hard for me to really want to change - my desire to become less rigid is fighting with my desire for consistency.  So I need to learn to distinguish between the positive and negative parts of the characteristic before I can begin to make any changes.  In other words, I need to unbundle rigidity and consistency if I hope to make a substantive change. 

Motivation to change starts with having some feelings about what I want to change.  Studies show that without emotions we cannot act.  Do my feelings, divided by perceived effort, equal at least 1?  If the perceived effort is greater than the emotions I feel and the equation is less than one, I will not act.

In 1965, Dr. Howard Leventhal and associates conducted a study in which researchers tried to get students to get their tetanus shot.  At first there was no reaction.  Then they increased the emotional component:  They showed students pictures of people who hadn't had a tetanus shot and what had happened to them.  Some students were motivated to take action, but most did not.  Then researcheers demonstrated the reduced effort it would take to get the shot - on one flyer they included the location of the clinic, the hours of operation, and even the phone number.  Only then did they get a large response.  By lowering the perceived effort required to get the shot, the researchers finally got students sufficiently motivated to take action.

The second component of motivation to change is recognizing the need to change.  This only happens when we take responsibility for our actions, rather than blaming others.  For example, if the attitude within the workplace is "I couldn't get that done because I didn't have enough lead time and then I didn't have the right tools to get the job done," then it's hard to drive change because no one feels responsible for the process or the outcome.  On the other hand, if the attitude within the organization encourages a more positive approach - "If I need better tools to get the job done, it's my responsibility to request those tools" - then it's easier to recognize the need to change.

The third component of motivation to change is believing change is possible.  Whether I do or don't, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If I have a growth mindset - if I think that we (the organization and I) can grow, change and adapt - then it will happen.  At the same time, if I feel that it's not possible, it won't happen.  A growth mindset can be taught:  Talking about neuroplasticity can help, and fostering a workplace culture that values and encourages growth and development will also make a difference.  But like all organizational neural pathways, these mindsets have to be reinforced.


NEXT:  Part IV - Implications for Organizations

Published in News

Last time, we talked about what positive psychology really is, and how it's important when you're thinking about change in large organizations.

Today we're going to look at neuroplasticity.

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is one of those five-dollar words that actually has a straightforward meaning:  From 'neural' (pertaining to the nerves) and 'plastic' (changeable), it refers to the brain's capacity to change on a physiological level.  In other words, neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to form new neural connections.

It's these new neural connections which allow us to learn, think or do new things.  It's what allows a baby to learn to walk and talk, and what allows a person who's suffered a stroke to relearn to walk and talk.  Neuroplasticity enables us to change habits, to learn new languages, and to learn new information.

Neural pathways are channels in our brain, sort of like roadways.  They're created and sustained through our experiences.  Used often, the roadways stay wide and open; used less often, the roadways become narrow and less easy to traverse.  These neural roadways are created through experience:  A new neural pathway will be narrow, reflecting the beginning of a new experience, while a wider neural pathway indicates a more mature, more-used experience, like a habit or a customary way we consider information.

Neural pathways are self-reinforcing:  The more you use them, the wider and more entrenched they become.  This is good news if we want to continue that pathway without having to think about it too much - but it's bad news if we want to change in some way.

The problem is that some of our neural pathways are negative, like if we're constantly criticizing or finding fault with ourselves or others, or if we're always worrying.  The more we worry, the more we strengthen these negative pathways, and the more difficult it becomes to change those pathways.

On the other hand, a positive neural pathway is where positive habits, like looking on the bright side or making positive choices, come into play.  Luckily, these positive pathways can be equally strong as the negative ones.

What does this mean for change and change management?

Understanding the way our brain creates and sustains these neural pathways helps us to create and sustain change on a personal level.  If we're a 'fault finder' but want to become a 'benefit finder', we need to find a way to shrink the 'fault finder' neural pathways and expand the 'benefit finder' neural pathways - we have to block the negative roadway while widening the positive one.  Just as roadbuilding isn't fast or easy, neither is neural change - it takes time and concerted effort.

This has implications for both the individual and the organization.  Brain lock is signified as a deep-rooted neural pathway.  For individuals, these  pathways can manifest as obsessive-compulsive disorder.  For organizations, these pathways - also known as 'processes' - can be what makes change difficult or impossible.


NEXT:  Part III - Motivation to Change



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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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