More on the Importance of Emotion When Leading Change

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John Kotter

It is a big deal, as John Kotter suggests.  The reason so many change initiatives fail is that they rely too much on fact gathering, analysis, report writing, and presentations—the logic—instead of an approach aimed at grabbing the feelings that motivate behavior change.

This reason for failure can be best understood with a quick explanation of the brain and the theory of cognitive dissonance.

People, much like computers, are processors of information.  Information comes in through our senses, we apply a mental operation to it, and thus, change it.  We apply another mental operation and change it again.  We continue the process until we have an output ready to be stored in memory or used to generate some behavior.  But unlike computers, we have two different ways of processing information.

The first mode is rational.  Operating in the part of our brain called the neocortex, it is the mode of our conscious and is thoughtful, analytical, and reflecting.  Operating simultaneously, and often independently, is another mode that is impulsive and often illogical.  This emotional mode is quicker and more powerful than the rational mind.  Controlled by the amygdala, the emotional mind takes in whole chunks of information and acts immediately without thinking.  It determines such primitive reactions such as whether we should fight or flee.

Unfortunately, the emotional mind is often wrong.  Since it is in charge of life or death decisions, it uses a rapid, associative process that takes elements from the information that is received, relates it to past data stored in memory, and determines the appropriate output of behavior.  The emotional mind, however, operates based on its perceptions of the data.  How information seems or what it reminds us of is far more important than the reality of that information.  The emotional mind associates current information with the feelings or moods of the memory and reacts to the current situation without distinguishing it from the past.

The rational mind, in contrast, is not as interested in associations as it is with objective information.  It wants facts, figures, and data.  It wants to weigh the information carefully, analyze it, contemplate it, compare it to past data, and produce logical behavioral output.  But by the time the rational mind has completed its examination, the faster and more action-oriented emotional mind has generated a behavior.  It may be the wrong behavior, but by then, it is too late.

To paraphrase the American author Ambrose Bierce, speak with the emotional mind and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

The emotional mind can create significant confusion in our rational mind.  Emotions tend to lie just beneath the surface of awareness, but are the guiding force behind our actions and decisions.  Decisions such as whether to get married, which car to buy, what to wear, or even which entrée to choose on the never-ending, Chinese restaurant menu, are influenced by strong feelings that are not necessarily registering in our rational mind.

The resulting confusion from this process often causes us to freeze with indecisiveness, unable to make a logical choice.  But as we know, logic seems to have less to do with these decisions than does emotion.  Our rational mind ultimately seems to decide by factoring in our intuition and how we “feel” about the choices.

And that leads me to cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling we get when we hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously.  The ideas might include facts, perceptions, beliefs, behaviors, attitudes or opinions.  And when we have this feeling, we are motivated to reduce dissonance by changing our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, or by justifying our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

Dissonance occurs when one idea suggests the opposite of another.  For example, belief that your work team is talented and efficient is inconsistent with the notion of hiring an outside consulting or outsourcing firm to improve or replace the team (I have a bit of experience with that).  The inconsistency then leads to dissonance which can be felt as stress, anxiety, shame, anger, grief, the blues or other negative emotional states.

Since these feelings are “bad,” and interfere with our desired state of harmony, we do everything we can to get rid of the negative emotion.  Our choices are:

  1. To realize the error of our ways and modify our belief—change our rational mind, or
  2. Dig in our heels, put up our dukes and create additional reasons why we are right.

Guess what happens during times of change?

Now, I hope you understand why during times of change we shouldn’t lead with the logic behind the change.  “Change” creates an immediate negative emotion followed by cognitive dissonance followed by a deeper negative emotion followed by #2 (and yes, I mean that metaphorically as well!).

The key to managing change is to speak to the emotions first.  This helps reduce the intensity of the emotional response and gives the rational mind time to catch up.

It’s not that the logic for our organization decisions is incorrect.  In fact, most often it’s right on target.  It’s just that something else is a greater truth.  It’s something all of the smart, analytical, rationally-minded people have always suspected.

We—the “we” governed by the rapidly firing, emotional mind, not the thoughtful, reflecting rational mind—are a little slow.

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