Future-Proofing Courageous Leaders and Teams

Leadership is challenging at the best of times. The last few years have added certain complexities that require a more adaptive approach to leading and collaborating. This, in addition to leadership complexities that already existed in the prior years, adds further layers that today’s leaders must navigate. This further explains why many organisational change initiatives have historically not been very successful. Be it culture, strategy, systems, service delivery, or even office relocation, change causes resistance in people.

Courageous leader: 
possesses a strong sense of purpose, conviction, and integrity and is willing to stand up for what they believe in and follow through even in the face of adversity

“We are now working a more flexible hybrid system - a good balance of work from home and office - yet there is so much resistance to our office move” – Head of Risk, services company

The change processes have typically been too complex and approached very ‘intellectually’. Leaders address the issues, tweak the processes and systems, get the structures in place, and get on with it, missing the human component in the change process. Change is an ‘emotional’ process that requires behavioural change from people.

“70% of employees thought the change effort did not achieve their goals” – NeuroLeadership Institute

In our conversations with executives in leadership positions, we observed that too much focus is placed on the reason for change without enough clarity and consistency in the execution of change with limited attention to the corresponding behaviours, and habits. People eventually fall back to their old behaviours and habits derailing the change initiative through cognitive dissonance - misalignment between our thoughts, beliefs, values, or actions.

“Our client, a Global Manufacturing Director of a global medical products manufacturer lamented that at times he felt that he was driving the change alone and that people he inherited were too complacent with old ways of doing things. Although he encouraged them to challenge the status quo and make a difference, only a handful attempted to but their efforts were drowned by the vast majority who were stuck to the old ways of work” Raj Kumar, Managing Partner, CnetG Asia.

Future-Proofing Your Leadership Team

Future-Proofing is the ability of leaders and teams to adapt to different complex situations, by leveraging their brain to think and act differently.

Clarity and consistency in the execution of change require a greater focus on the people processes especially behaviours and habits and their way of being. And at the heart of any successful change effort is people’s ability to adapt. Adaptability.

Adaptability is about having ready access to a range of behaviours that enable people to shift and experiment as things change. To help people create meaning for themselves, making change personal.

Fundamentally, what every organisation wants is a shift in behaviours from its people to correspond with the organisation’s change initiative. Yet organisational change typically falls short because they fail to help their people build or strengthen their adaptability. This is unfortunate because all humans have the most powerful adaptable organ: the brain.

Evidence and research-based neuroscience data show that the brain adapts naturally through self-determined insights and can re-wire itself for a new purpose by reorganising old pathways and creating new ones. This is called neuroplasticity where every time the brain learns something new the brain changes!

So why not leverage this powerful organ to effect lasting behavioural change?

In conversations from both sides of the divide the feedback is similar:

For teams:

“When we undertook a major search project to fill several management positions with a European manufacturer, the feedback we got from talking to managers on the shop floor was that there were frequent ownership and leadership change, with different visions and directions. As they adopted the changes and were set to produce results, a new leader came in or they were acquired by yet another new investor. They were disillusioned by where they were heading towards and resigned themselves to working 9-5 and ignoring long-term career goals”, – Raj Kumar, Managing Partner, CnetG Asia.

“Our teams know what to do but don’t do what they know” – Vice President, corporate client services, healthcare industry.

For leaders:

“Many leaders of organizations are busy chasing multiple goals while navigating challenges along the way. Although they might have the best individuals leading their respective divisions, what is often missing is cross-functional collaboration. The overall strategy should also spell out cross-functional collaboration as a means to deliver unified results. To achieve this organizations should break down silos and foster collaboration” – Raj Kumar, Managing Partner, CnetG Asia.

“Organisation structure aside, the head of departments and business units are not engaging with one another or as a team” – Head of Special Projects, property development company.

At the root level, ironically, both sides of the divide want the same change in behaviour:

Connecting, engaging, collaborating, motivating, and adapting is what the brain does naturally BUT some challenges must be addressed first.

3 Challenges To Adaptability

Three facts about the brain need to be addressed first to strengthen adaptability:

1. Your brain wants to keep you safe and alive

Our brain’s focus is to keep us safe and alive! We owe this design to our forefathers who lived in a very different world from ours. His focus was to stay alive from the threat of the sabre-toothed tiger creating a fight, run or freeze (be eaten) response. Today, this threat (stress) response of fight, flight or freeze is still present and has a valid purpose. It gives us an alert that something needs our attention and time (usually nanoseconds) to assess if the threat is real.
Strengthening adaptability
Thankfully, we no longer have to deal with the sabre-toothed tiger, but the modern world presents “metaphorical tigers”. Change is the metaphorical tiger. It creates a threat response in people. This is our oldest brain and it is hard to function effectively when this brain is triggered. Constant triggers of the threat response are not humanly sustainable. Instead, leaders and teams should collectively identify these threat triggers, and co-create an environment that eliminates or minimises threat.

2. 95% of our brain activity is unconscious

We are autopilot creatures. Our brains were designed to keep us doing as much as possible automatically. Otherwise, our brains would get too tired.
Our brain has limited cognitive capacity - it can't concentrate on everything at the same time. Processing all information it receives in a highly stimulated world can overwhelm the brain. To overcome, this our brain memorises and automates tasks so that we can do them without thinking – such as driving our car, brushing our teeth, and making daily decisions. It is the brain’s way of finding shortcuts to minimise energy usage on mundane tasks to free up capacity for more important tasks. And the brain filters information constantly, eliminating non-essential information from essential information, bringing to our awareness ONLY what is important for us and to keep us safe.

Strengthening adaptability
To address some necessities in business, leaders and teams may have automated certain tasks that now need some manual intervention. It is useful to identify patterns that don’t serve the team any longer and bring conscious awareness to the behaviours/habits they take for granted. To understand where the collective assumptions and norms are no longer valid leading to team misalignment. To implement lasting change, leaders and teams need to firstly understand what is happening automatically for them.

3. Social (emotional) and real pain are the same

The brain feels social pain, such as negative feedback, the same way it feels physical pain, a cut on the arm. Neuroscience research shows that taking a painkiller for social pain reduces the ‘sensation’ of pain just as it does in physical pain. The human brain is also unique in its ability to imagine or ‘see’ the future. With this uniqueness comes the ability to imagine bad as well as good. Sometimes making the imagined very different (far worse) than reality, triggering negative emotions and moods.
Strengthening adaptability
Humans are more emotional than rational. We would like to think otherwise but research shows that we tend to make emotional/irrational decisions and justify them later rationally. Emotions are the link between thought and action and therefore impact our outcomes. Moods, which are longer-term emotions, impact outcomes too. Emotions and moods are a core part of decision-making but often get a bad rap. Typically, due to ‘negative’ emotions. Emotions are neither negative nor positive but either serve us or don’t and addressing the ‘emotional alignment’ between leaders and teams is where team cohesiveness begins.
What Future-Proof Courageous Leaders And Teams DO

The why-how paradigm: from insights to new behaviours.
Our brain is a re-wiring machine. Our brain’s networks are constantly changing as we experience the world around us and learn new information and skills. We can change the wiring and connections within our brains by changing the narrative we tell ourselves individually and as a collective (team), AND by the corresponding actions we take.
This is the foundation for behavioural change.

Adaptability happens through insights. The brain generates insights daily. Some of these insights don’t get much further than a fleeting thought whereas others become ideas that disrupt, innovate and more. Insights drive motivation, motivation drives adaptability, and adaptability drives behaviours and eventually habits.

“Employees are often OK with change: 67% felt motivated to adapt their behaviours to support their organisation change effort” – NeuroLeadership Institute

Understanding that the brain can create new connections, open new pathways, strengthen existing pathways and dampen non-serving ones can be liberating. This is how adaptability is strengthened leading to greater options to shift current behaviours to new ones and to create a more empowered, collaborative, and trusting environment.

“We don’t need more intellectual training like blue ocean strategy, what we need is to future-proof our actions - to connect with others to drive change” – Business Unit Head, property development company (having attended a future-proofing workshop)

The Future-Proofing Process

The key elements at the heart of the future-proofing journey are Awareness (gateway to the future), Attention (the fuel for creating and sustaining change) and Action (aligning brain-body congruence and cadence).

Awareness – Why
The first step in any lasting change journey is Awareness. Getting off autopilot and onto ‘manual’ can reveal much. The insights garnered from this conscious process provide clues to what needs attention. Combined with the awareness of our brain’s design and the three levels of behaviours provide the foundation for behavioural change.

Neuroscience concurs with Sheryl Sandberg, “We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”

Attention - What
New behaviour formation requires Attention and Repetition. Attention is the superpower but a scarce resource. Attention is the process of getting into ‘manual’ mode and where change happens. This is where new behaviours are defined and tested by leaders and teams. Because attention is a limited resource incorporating any new behaviours requires effort.

Action - How
This is where the real work takes place – cadence or repetition and time. To make the new behaviours into habits (automatic behaviours). Habits don’t require much thinking and effort. The intention is to automate ‘manual’ behaviours (back to autopilot) through repetition thereby freeing up mental capacity. Enabling leaders and teams to initiate new behaviours automatically, making it a default way of behaving.

About Future-Proofing And The Author

Future-proofing You, a phrase invented by Yoga Nesadurai is about strengthening the adaptability of courageous leaders and teams. Over the last 25+ years of her international career, Yoga has seen technology and processes evolve but the people issues remain the same. They seem worse now given the recent past. Yoga is a Client Partner with CnetG Asia, supporting clients to create future-proof leaders and teams.

Being an avid change and process consultant in her past life, Yoga realised that going from an as-is to a to-be state for an organisation required more than just ‘doing’. The people component of change needed to be addressed too. The human ‘being’ processes became her focus in managing large-scale change projects in Europe.

Fast forward to the present day, armed with her wealth of global work experience, diverse upbringing and professional training in Neuroscience, Emotional Literacy and Behavioural sciences, Yoga now helps courageous leaders and teams, address their people processes. To future-proof themselves by leveraging their superpower, the brain, to understand first why they do what they do!

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