Interview with #EuroComm17 keynote speaker Hilary Scarlett

Hilary Scarlett, key note speaker at EuroComm, on March 28th, will talk about Transformation from a Neuroscience perspective. She shares some insights with EMENA Region Board MemberKasha Dougall.

How have you personally experienced transformation?

Setting up my own business and becoming self-employed after working for many years in a consultancy was a key moment of transformation for me. I wondered if I could do it and whether it would actually work. It was tough leaving a familiar structure and people whom I really liked. What would it be like working, initially, on my own? Would I be able to win enough work? How would I deal with IT problems?! However, it was an extremely liberating experience. I can make choices about the kind of work I want to do and whom I work with.  I work for what I truly believe in.

Many years ago I was in a role where I was very unhappy. It is interesting to note that when we go through more difficult times, it helps us to be more empathetic for others who are struggling. We know what it feels like and how tough it can be.  Empathy is a very important and useful emotion at work.

You mention empathy. Can you tell us why this is important?

 It’s not just ‘nice’ to show empathy: empathetic leaders tend to get more out of their teams. Neuroscience tests have shown that if we are in the presence of an empathetic person, we are more likely to stick at difficult tasks for longer and try harder. We are social creatures and research shows that we focus and collaborate better if we feel someone cares about us.

You published a book called Neuroscience for Organizational Change, last year. What is Neuroscience?

Put at its simplest, neuroscience is the study of the nervous system including the brain. Applied neuroscience is how we take the learnings out of the lab and make them practical and useful for leaders and managers in companies.

Why is it difficult for employees and teams to undergo change? Why is transformation tough for the brain to manage?

For our brains, it’s all about survival. To ensure survival, one of the things they want to do is to predict, so that we can protect ourselves. During change, we can’t predict the future. This creates an unsettling environment for the brain.  It’s as if an error alert has gone off in our brains. Our brains are distracted until we have certainty again – the brain feels the uncertainty as a threat. Change that is unpredictable and uncontrollable – that combination of the two – is particularly stressful to our brains.

Our brains also want to be lazy so that they can conserve energy. Our brains like habits because they are mentally less taxing for us. Change means doing things differently which requires more mental effort.

How can we appease the brain during times of change to reduce stress?

Even just acknowledging that change is not easy and being aware of what is happening can help. We need to be empathetic towards ourselves: if we are finding organisational change hard, it is not surprising as our brains don’t like it.  Any steps that can give more certainty to a situation will be helpful, especially from a communications stand point. Guaranteeing a regular communication process will have a positive impact, even just sending weekly updates, for example. The organisation might not be able to give certainty about the change, but it can give certainty around how employees will be communicated with.  Another thing we can do is to set short-term goals for people. Setting short-term goals enables employees to ‘tick off’ what they have achieved. Achieving a goal is rewarding to the brain and changes the chemicals in it. It feels good and puts our brains in a better place to take on the next challenge.

What advice do you give managers leading teams through change?

The brain wants to avoid threats (this goes back to survival). We are much more sensitive to threats than we are to rewards.  This is the reason that negative feedback will have a greater impact than positive comments: someone can tell you five things they loved about what you did but it is the one criticism that tends to stand out in our minds.  People become even more sensitive to ‘threats’ and criticism when they are going through change. During transition, leaders tend to go into “broadcast mode”, trying to sell their solutions. Giving employees more time to come to their own conclusions about why this is the right course of direction puts employees’ brains into a more constructive place. It makes it easier for the brain to accept the need for change and to become more committed to implementing it. Choice is extremely important to our brains. We are all less committed to change if we feel it has been imposed upon us. Leaders will make a big difference if they involve teams in the transformation process where they can, and communicate regularly with them.

Why do you think Neuroscience is particularly important to communicators?

I think it is essential. If we can understand a little about how the human brain works, then we can work with it rather than in ignorance of it.  Sometimes leaders can be skeptical about the collaborative and inclusive approach that internal communicators advocate. Neuroscience brings science and evidence: leaders are often more open to a scientific approach that brings credence to what we do.

  • If you want to learn more about how NeuroScience can help communicators be more effective in bringing about change within their organizations, join Hilary Scarlett at #EuroComm17 in London on 28 March
Posted in EMENA Regional news.