Developing adaptive employees has been a goal of organizations for over a decade. While the pandemic forced a degree of adaptation for all of us, it also created even more uncertainty as we look toward the future. Moreover, adaptation fatigue, one of the myriad reasons people resist change, may have worsened, making it even harder to encourage team members to continue to be adaptive or, more simply, to go with the flow.
That leaves leaders with a tremendous challenge: how can you help team members who were hired for clearly defined roles and responsibilities transform into engaged workers who rise to a challenge?
The historic focus on processes, controls, and efficiency to ensure standardization in production created employees who were trained to follow routines, not to question the status quo. Employees were rarely encouraged to constantly evaluate their work and look for new ways to change those processes. Rather, they were taught to follow rules or suffer punishment, which could take a variety of forms, from critical performance assessments to lower bonuses to lesser status among peers.
In contrast, researchers have found that developing resilience, or helping team members learn how to respond openly to challenges, is the key to establishing the right mindset for change. That requires a tolerance for ambiguity and an inquisitive attitude that many workers were struggling to maintain before the pandemic, let alone after these past two years. But becoming more resilient is not only possible, it may be the best path toward a healthier happier workforce in the future.
Developing a Resilient Brain
Resilience is a challenge for the brain. To preserve energy, our brains prefer to create habits that enable automaticity–the performance of tasks without much conscious thought. If a behavior is routine, like brushing our teeth, our brains use significantly less energy to complete it.
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Additionally, all throughout our lives, the brain undertakes two adaptive functions to encourage the creation of those well-worn pathways: priming and pruning. Priming is the neural mechanism that makes the pathways move quickly. The more we do something repeatedly, the smoother that pathway becomes (and the more habitual our behaviors become). Pruning is how they brain weakens the connections and pathways that it does not use frequently in order to conserve energy. That’s where the saying, “if you don’t use it you lose it” comes from. It’s not necessarily gone; but the pathway to finding it may need to be re-routed, so the brain has to use more energy to find the information that you want to recall. And sometimes it struggles to do so.
One way to influence how the brain primes and prunes is to encouraging problem-solving. Addressing new challenges helps individuals change the way they view a situation and, with practice, effort, and energy, change the way they think. In simpler terms, it changes the neural pathways to create connections that might not have existed before or that might have already been pruned. Another way to influence priming and pruning is to “rewrite” the stories in one’s brain, often from “I can’t” to “I can”.
Overcoming Brain Obstacles
Dr. Golnaz Tabibnia, an affective neuroscientist at UC Irvine, and Dan Radecki, now Executive Director of Neuroscience at AbbVie, conducted an analysis aimed at understanding behavioral and cognitive strategies that encourage adaptability and resilience. They found three primary factors that impact resilience: fear and stress, physical health, and social connections. According to the researchers, fear and stress are at the heart of resistance. Yet managers rarely assuage fear and stress; often times they cause it. Not talking with team members about their feelings only makes the fear and stress worse, lessoning the likelihood that they can re-write those stories and thereby adapt.
Instead, Tabibnia and Radecki suggest using emotional regulation and cognitive training to build resilience. Emotional regulation refers to how we cope with stress and is central to our ability to respond effectively to changes in our environment. It’s not about constraining emotions; rather, it is a measure of the degree to which we manage or adapt, as opposed to avoiding engagement. The more effective individuals are at regulating their emotions, the more easily they can adapt. Encouraging emotional regulation requires a safe space for team members to talk about how they feel and discuss what they can do to address what bothers them.
Cognitive training is the re-writing of the stories in the brain, referred to above. It allows team members to reframe the way they see a situation and come up with other explanations for what might be happening. If they can tell themselves a story that they may benefit from, they are more able to feel in control and begin to adapt.
If individuals can reassess a situation, they can change how they respond. In the context of organizational change, this is a highly valuable finding. As managers look to overcome resistance, helping employees view a situation that causes them emotional distress differently may provide key to allowing them to feel safe, in control, and empowered. That may change the way they think and feel about what they are being asked to do, which, in turn, may help change their behavior.