Lest anyone think I’ve taken leave of my senses, what I’m calling “crocodile management” has a well-established basis in neuroscience. Let me explain.

Organisational change may often be in dynamic interplay with organisational conservation; think small innovations that don’t rock the boat too much. However, every so often, big, disruptive change becomes an unavoidable necessity. Whenever this appears on the horizon, you can be sure of one thing: there are going to be many frightened people in your organisation.

As organisational change and leadership experts Vijay Govindarajan and Hylke Faber recently explained in an elegant article for the Harvard Business Review, change management is fear management.

Where do crocodiles come in? Neuroscience demonstrates that fear responses are orchestrated and governed by a brain structure called the amygdala, which in evolutionary terms belongs to the part of our brains that came long before the distinctly human cerebral cortex had evolved. The cerebral cortex is the thinking, reasoning, problem-solving part of the human brain; while the amygdala is the primitive structure we share with reptiles – hence the crocodile analogy.

Like it or not, we all have an “inner crocodile” ready to hijack our reasoning and thinking capabilities when circumstances trigger fear responses. These responses are focussed on basic survival in an immediate way; long-term thinking and nuanced problem solving get pushed aside when the amygdala – the inner crocodile – wakes up.

There are big implications for anyone in a leadership role that is presiding over significant organisational change. If you neglect the inner crocodiles of your staff, they’ll devour your navigation strategies. Managing change involves crocodile taming. This entails finding ways to reactivate the higher functions of the cerebral cortex, the true talents and resources of your staff, even when anxiety levels are understandably running high.

Next time, I’ll explore ways of calming the crocodiles and bringing people on board in a constructive and even courageous way. Courage isn’t about fearlessness; it’s about doing what needs to be done even while feeling afraid.

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