Let’s unpack that crocodile-soothing intervention of President Roosevelt that I described last time and relate it back to organisational change. Roosevelt, of course, had no knowledge of the powerful role of the amygdala in human fear responses. However, as a polio survivor, he did know a great deal about fear and how to overcome it. Govindarajan and Faber, who I’ve referred to throughout this series, break Roosevelt’s strategic intervention into three categories or “boxes”, and they make for indispensable reading for anyone leading a major organisational change:
Box 1: Managing the present
Roosevelt’s fireside chat broadcast directly addressed the fears of the nation in a calm and steady yet truthful way.
Box 2: Selectively forgetting the past
Closing the banks for a week broke with the past dramatically; there had never been a week-long hiatus in the US payments system. This gave Roosevelt time to address fear and restore calm.
Box 3: Creating the future
Roosevelt’s comments about having nothing to fear but fear itself opened the gates to what he described as a “first step in the government’s reconstruction of our financial and economic fabric.” He didn’t deny the fear, but he put it in its proper place and helped people see a brighter future coming their way.
Fear has to be managed. Neuroscientific studies suggest that we’re 25 per cent less intelligent when our crocodile brains kick in, a process known as “amygdala hijack”. Leaders have to begin at square one: taming their own crocodiles. You can’t contain and support someone else’s fears until you’ve managed your own. With that in place, humour can be a godsend. When Adobe ditched its flagship packaged software – its cash-cow services – to focus on cloud software, it released a video poking fun at “Revenue Addicts” who resisted letting that part of the business go.
Laughing at fear makes people feel braver. The fear is still there, but with humour, it starts to look less overwhelming. It only gets bigger when people try to hide from it or run away from it.