Wear Your Red Hat to Implement Change More Effectively

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All change, even change that leads to improved business performance, represents displacement and threat to those affected. This is the key reason most efforts to produce change fail. Cultivating awareness of the emotional experiences associated with change is crucial to making change successfully.

In the training program on Team Creativity that Dr. Richard Kremsdorf and I developed for MIT's Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP), we incorporate Edward DeBono's Six Hat framework into a structured process for analyzing problems and generating creative solutions. The six colored hats symbolize different ways of thinking, or moves that participants can make, in the context of team interaction.

One of the "hats" is the red hat. "Red-hat thinking" or "red-hat moves" have to do with feelings or emotions. At the appropriate point in the process, we ask team members to "put on their red hats" and discuss how they feel about the various proposed solutions to a problem. Invariably, this part of the process is problematic. Team members have trouble differentiating their intellectual reactions from their emotional ones. For example, a team member might say, "I feel that this solution will be the most economical." This is after we have already asked them to state their thoughts about the positive aspects of the solution (the yellow-hat step).

Recently, the cause of this difficulty dawned on me. MIT students (like many of us who earn a living using the part of our bodies above the neck) are selected for their intellectual prowess. They tend to be less skilled (and therefore less comfortable) in accessing their feelings. Asking them how they feel about a proposed solution is too vague. A more specific (and more effective) question is, "what emotional concerns does this solution raise for you or the others who will be affected?"

With the benefit of a more specific prompt, and a little coaching, they are much more likely to become aware of the kinds of feelings that undermine successful efforts to implement change. Eventually, they will grow to be the kinds of team members and leaders who can say, "This solution is likely to scare the individuals whose jobs it may threaten." Or "This solution is likely to embarrass the people who developed our current method." Armed with this awareness, they are much more likely to anticipate the resistance they are likely to encounter and devise effective steps to mitigate it.

The lessons from the MIT UPOP Team Creativity training generalize to many other situations. For example, this sort of questioning can be useful in executive and team coaching.

Originally posted by Paul Edelman on LinkedIn on July 27, 2018.

Translating People Analytics Insights into Impact: Speaking to the Pro-Change Part of the Brain


People analytics practitioners strive to derive insights from HR data to inform managerial decision-making and drive improvements in employee engagement and performance. New scientific insights suggest that practitioners can have greater positive impact by cultivating the ability to speak to the "pro-change" part of managers' brains.

At the Conference Board’s recent HR Analytics Conference several participants described this frustrating pattern:

  1. The analytics practitioner meets with a line-management client to discuss a real business problem (e.g. reducing the cost of turnover)

  2. Together they formulate a question that can be answered by gathering and analyzing data (e.g. what are the controllable causes of turnover?)

  3. The analytics practitioner gathers data, analyzes it, extracts insights about the problem, and develops possible solutions

  4. The analytics practitioner meets with the line manager to share the insights

  5. The line manager questions the validity of the data or the insights

  6. The analytics practitioner attempts to defend the validity of the data or the insights

  7. The engagement ends with the analytics practitioner feeling frustrated with their ability to produce impact

This pattern recurs frequently enough that it is worth asking:

  1. What factors underly this pattern?

  2. Are there best practices for shifting the pattern and achieving more positive outcomes?

From my experience doing organizational consulting and executive coaching, as well as from my study of recent developments in brain science, I have developed a perspective I would like to share and refine through discussion with leading people analytics practitioners. There is scientific evidence that the brain is a complex, interdependent systems comprised of multiple subsystems. Different subsystems are activated at different times and under different circumstances. 

The so-called parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) controls the body at rest and is activated when we think positive thoughts. It is associated with positive emotions like hope. The neural pathways in this system are longer and function more slowly. When you ask a manager to envision positive changes in their organization, and to imagine the benefits that will accrue to him or herself personally from those changes, this part of the brain is most active. 

The sympathetic nervous systems (SNS) controls the body's responses to perceived threats and is responsible for the "fight or flight" response. It is associated with negative emotions like fear and anxiety. These pathways are shorter and function much faster. When you present a manager with information that is threatening in some way, this part of the brain is activated.

The language we use when we speak with our clients can activate either of these systems. For our purposes, as people analytics practitioners hoping to effect positive change in organizations, I suggest calling the PNS, the “pro-change” part of the brainWe can think of the SNS as the “no-change” part of the brain. Our challenge then is to find ways to speak to the pro-change system within the brain and avoid activating the no-change system. For example, compare the following questions:

  1. Would you like me to do a survey to find out what people see as the issues in your organization?

  2. Would it enhance your position in some way to know what people see as the issues in your organization?

Let’s assume that the manager already suspects that there are issues, and that some of these may be the result of things that he or she has either done or failed to do. Question one is likely to evoke a negative emotional response and activate the SNS, or no-change system within the brain. In earlier times, the human fight or flight reflex was easier to recognize. Our clients, however, have evolved too far to punch us in the nose, or get up and run. So we may not recognize the fight or flight response when they reply, “How do I know your survey methods are valid?” or “Why don’t you come back in a few weeks so we can discuss this further?”

Question two is designed to speak to the PNS or pro-change part of the brain. The survey still represents the same threat of exposure, however, we are purposely redirecting our client’s brain by challenging it to envision possible positive consequences that could flow from doing the survey. This is more likely to evoke a positive emotional (and behavioral) response.

So one best practice for people analytics practitioners is to pay careful attention to the language we use and to cultivate the skill of purposely speaking to the pro-change part of our client’s brains. 

I am interested in hearing feedback from people analytics practitioners. Please send your comments, suggestions, or questions to paul@edeltech.com, or call me on 508-947-5300. Also, do you have a best practice to share? I am interested in learning what has worked for you.

Originally posted by Paul Edelman on LinkedIn on November 8, 2017.