Implementing Change, Part 2: Recognizing our Human Nature

In Implementing Change, Part 1: With More Predictability Than the Weather, I discussed how reflecting on your own reactions to feeling out of control in relation to the weather is helpful in gaining empathy towards employees who often feel like the changes in their organization are as unpredictable as the weather.

As humans, we respond to our environments, whether it’s meteorological climate or to our organizational climate. There is research and a model that reminds us that we as humans respond to our environments in the same ways that we might only think of other animals responding–even in organizational settings. For example, we are grounded in our innate tendency to monitor our environment for threats and rewards and to then take action to avoid threats and move towards rewards. This circuitry and these impulses in our brains impact our relationships with others and more broadly how we interact with our environment and ultimately make decisions.

The SCARF model (developed by David Rock) highlights the importance of looking at these basic human instincts when trying to understand social interactions.

It is crucial to look at our sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

  • Status: Our relative importance to others
  • Certainty: Our being able to predict the future
  • Autonomy: Our sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: Our sense of safety with others
  • Fairness: Our perception of fair exchanges between people

These feelings are at play in our life, and definitely at work when we think about how people experience their relationships with others in organizations. For example, my sense of autonomy (my sense of being able to control events) is exactly where I feel challenged when I cannot stop the oncoming winter and changing seasons in the outside world. I bet you could think of tons of examples within your own organization when your sense of autonomy was challenged; this is an often felt sentiment in organizations going through change. Similarly, my sense of certainty (being able to predict the future) is challenged from the weather when I don’t know if my flight will be canceled due to snowstorms, or if my much anticipated picnic in the park will have to be rescheduled; this sense of “not knowing” is also all too common in organizations when impactful changes are announced at random.

In organizations, it is crucial for leaders not to forget our humanity and to always try to address such needs as our needs for certainty and autonomy. This is even more critical when an organization is going through change. It’s important to be constantly asking:

  • How can we implement changes that allow people to have the most control in the process and a greater say in the change?
  • How can we be clearer about upcoming events and changes so that people know what to expect as much as we are able to predict?
  • How do we communicate this out in a way that respects people’s needs for certainty and autonomy?

The more we can support people’s needs rather than leaving them ‘out in the cold’ feeling a lack of autonomy and certainty, the less likely they will shut down due to a threat response. The more we can give people a sense of autonomy and certainty in their work, the more likely they will be able to have positive relationships with others and be productive in their organization.