In Change Management, Project Management, Team Effectiveness

You’ve arrived at the site of an important customer. You’re about to address a group of their senior executives and you’re feeling excited about it – you’ve done loads of work on this, and feel well prepared. You can picture yourself walking out of the door in an hour or so with a deeper relationship, a bunch of engaged stakeholders, and maybe even a promise of more business!  What could possibly go wrong?

It can be the small things that derail our good intentions and undo our good work – things that we feel are beyond our control. This blog is a reminder for all change managers, facilitators, and project managers – stay aware of what your brain is doing, because it has a mind of its own!

Let’s carry on with the story. You’d asked for a projector, but there are some technical problems and it doesn’t work. It takes a while to resolve this, and now the presentation is running late. You know it’s not your fault, but you’re unsettled by it. Your brain has gone into ’threat’ response, meaning that your ability to think clearly is compromised, as your brain is using up valuable resource and energy to avoid the perceived threat.

But you make a start on your carefully prepared presentation nonetheless, and manage to control your emotions and feel calmer. Out of the corner of your eye, you see your main sponsor get distracted and look out of the window. If you’d been thinking clearly, you would probably have realised that this could be because of a lot of things – most of them not connected to you. Perhaps they have  a sick child and got no sleep last night, or maybe a challenging meeting that keeps pressing on their thoughts. But you’re no longer in clear thinking mode, so you jump to conclusions, rushing up a ’ladder of inference’ to assume that the sponsor isn’t interested in what you have to say, and is going to show you the door. The situation in your brain is getting more complex now, and the focus you need to be successful is being severely hijacked!

In his SCARF model, David Rock has identified five domains of social experience that your brain treats the same as survival issues – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. He highlights that by recognising the impact of these five elements, we can gain more control over our brains and emotions, preventing them from undermining our efforts.

These two incidental occurrences – a technical problem, and a chance distraction – have the power to start a damaging chain of reactions. Your status has been attacked, because your client seems disengaged; your sense of certainty has completely gone because you’re no longer as sure about the outcome; things seem suddenly out of your control, leaving you with a decreasing sense of autonomy; and the whole situation leaves you feeling isolated and with an overwhelming feeling of the unfairness of it all.

This is so very far from how you felt when you walked in the door, and yet nothing has fundamentally changed.

When planning communications and interventions for projects, change initiatives, or when facilitating events, we can put a lot of work into preparing content and how to present it.

We should also learn to recognise the challenges to our social survival that the SCARF model describes, so that we can manage our responses and stay on track for success.

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