We have never experience a more demanding, fast-paced and complex leadership environment as we do now and the ability to adapt to change is vital for survival in today’s society, says Dr Dorrian Aiken, consultant and academic in the field of coaching, organisational transformation and leadership development. Dr Aiken spoke to a large audience of 160 alumni and business people at a recent Leaders’ Angle event of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).
Aiken says that most companies in South Africa use an authoritarian leadership style with a hierarchy, set of rules and very often, a disconnect between how organisations and their employees view the world of work. “Organisations focus on the bottom-line, measurables, outputs and results with little regard as to how their employees feel or are motivated in assisting the organisation in reaching their goals. It is important for organisations to understand how individuals, and they themselves, create their own barriers in accepting change to ensure sustainability, adaption during a time of crisis, growth of the company, high retention rates and loyalty amongst staff. And within this space, leaders play the most important role.”
Aiken describes resistance to change as a combination of, at the least, two critical factors: brain-based behaviour, and contesting world views. Regarding the brain, she says leaders need to be aware that our brains seek certainty – we like to predict what happens next: it may be a question of survival. “In organisations where you have new leaders, mergers and acquisitions, system changes and restructuring you will find a lot of anxiety amongst employees and management. Leaders need to give certainty and without it they trigger negativity amongst others and an immediate resistance to change.
Regarding the impact of competing worldviews on resistance to change, Aiken draws on the insights of Clare Graves, Don Beck and Christopher Cowen (the latter two authors of Spiral Dynamics), and Ken Wilber to name key influences. They point out that we humans are still evolving, and at each new stage in our evolution, a new world view or set of beliefs emerges, along with pre-existing worldviews. Wilber names the worldview stages as archaic, magic, mythic, rational, plural, and at this moment – emerging integral. Imagine, he says, a ladder with a climber on each rung: each climber sees the view from the position he is holding on the ladder. Each view transcends and includes the view from the lower rung, gaining in complexity and capable of ever-greater perspective. The consequence in the 21st century is the parallel existence of multiple worldviews, multiple belief systems “We jump to conclusions, make assumptions and react with negativity due to our inherent set of beliefs, our experiences and thoughts. What you believe influences your thoughts, affects your actions and the choices you make,” says Aiken.
What can we do to be less reactive, more inclusive of colliding belief systems? Give quality attention. “Leaders need to understand that our actions depend on the quality of our thinking yet the quality of our thinking depends on how we feel. In order to allow people to embrace change leaders need to give their employees the opportunity to think well. If you give someone quality attention regardless of conflicting viewpoints, you give value to that person or group. When people feel respected and heard they are less likely to have a resistance to change and are more open to others’ points of view, more willing to start a process of creating new patterns and behaviours.”
Aiken says mindfulness or a state of consciousness in our leadership is the first step in gaining acceptance of change, shifting perceptions and finding ways to practically move towards a position of openness.
Many neuroscientists believe that 90% of our brain activity happens below the level of conscious thought, leading to the conjecture that we have no free will. Other neuroscientists, like Jeffrey Schwartz would argue we do have ‘free won’t’. We can consciously intervene in a knee-jerk reaction. The less mindful or conscious we are, the more likely we are to stick to well-worn patterns of behaviour and resist change.
From the minute we are born we pick up patterns of behaviour; our long childhood conditions us to learn beliefs and behaviours from our carers. There is so much information to process that the brain efficiently compresses familiar sequences which can be activated by key triggers – But when dealing with change we need to consciously become aware of our feelings, our actions, behaviours, beliefs and patterns in order to open our minds to new possibilities.
“Because of the patterns stored you don’t consciously think of certain actions but the consequence of this is that we make assumptions – these could be a negative response when dealing with change. The more unconscious you go through life, the more of a knee-jerk reaction you will have – our limbic brain defaults to fight or flight in under a fifth of a second. Its core function is to enhance our chances of survival by enabling us to have an internal response to the external environment. We need to learn how to become self-aware, practice a state of consciousness daily and use reflective awareness in order to adapt to change.”
Patterns in the brain can change over a remarkably short period of time but one needs to know how to do this – ‘10,000 hours of practice’, as wisdom traditions have intuited. Neuroplasticity is the process of carving a new pathway in your brain, also called cortical remapping, a term that refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience and to create new pathways and alter existing ones in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information and create new memories.
“Positive reframing in itself is good, but it is not enough. At a deeper level, we need to be aware of how we undermine our own positive thinking. It’s easier for us to allow our brain to travel a well-known path of beliefs and thoughts, and therefore actions, the way we have done for most of our lives. Yet when you open up to conscious awareness of your thoughts and beliefs, through focussed practice you can re-wire your brain to include new habits of thinking.”
Aiken offers six lines of intelligence available to most adults for those wishing to start practicing a change in behaviour and patterns, aiming for the higher end of the scale within each.
On the lower end of the scale this is the ability to only think of the ‘now’ and to hold limited perspective ,whereas a dynamic leader should at the top end of the scale – able to think into the future, incorporate multiple perspectives and plan for variable consequences.
Emotional intelligence is about care and concern. At the low end of the spectrum, care and concern is about ‘me’ – an egocentric focus on one’s own needs. Sadly we have leaders in the world today who function from the low end of emotional intelligence. Most of us (it is estimated 78% of the world’s population) achieve sociocentric emotional intelligence – care and concern for me and my tribe, but not the rest. World centric emotional intelligence is the ability to have care and concern for ‘me, my tribe and my enemy’. Our beloved Nelson Mandela is a wonderful example of this ability, the lack of which is still a major challenge in 21st century leadership.
At the low end intolerance to diversity whereby the world and those around you must reflect your own preferences and needs, and at the top end of the scale an acceptance of diversity and the ability to negotiate across multiple differences.
The key to opening up all other intelligence lies within physical awareness of how we think, feel, react and notice things around us. Great leaders are aware of themselves and their environment and are extremely focussed and goal orientated because of it.
Sadly many of our institutions, like banking, asset management, financial services, and business schools, work on principles at the low end of the moral spectrum – “If I have it all, and you lose out, what’s wrong with that?” The push across the globe for higher standards of moral intelligence is evident in the Wall Street protests, in the emergence of ‘conscious capitalism’, the desire to nurture our ecology rather than ravage the earth of its resources. At the high end of the moral spectrum, the guiding principle is “to do the greatest good, for the greatest number, preserving the greatest value”.
At the low end, sits fundamentalism – a lack of tolerance of how people give meaning to their lives as opposed to realising how interconnected we are with all life and consciously honouring the mysterious patterns to which we belong.