When organisations are developing an order of change designed to achieve a whole new level of performance, you can be sure of one thing: it will rouse from slumber the “inner crocodiles” of the staff who have to implement it. This happens courtesy of a small but powerful brain structure called the amygdala. Amygdalas are activated when threats to safety are perceived. The bolder the change, the bigger the perceived threat will grow and the greater the resistance to change will become.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. Change management experts Professor Vijay Govindarajan and Hylke Faber, who I referred to in Part One of this series, cite the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who gave a masterclass in fear and change management upon entering the White House on 4th March 1933. He became President at a moment when the American people were gripped in panic over the Great Depression, running to the banks en masse to extract their savings. The entire financial system was under huge threat as a result. Just a matter of weeks after Roosevelt’s masterly intervention, much of that hoarded money had been returned to the banks and the financial markets rebounded.
Roosevelt did three vital things. First, he broke the habit of inaction by announcing a week-long bank holiday the day after he took office. This unprecedented move broke with the past. Then, in a “fireside chat” radio broadcast lasting less than 15 minutes, he brilliantly coached the public to surmount their paralysing fear and fostered the vision of a new, brighter future that would come when people realised that, as he put it, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” By talking in this way and addressing fear directly and straightforwardly, he was able to assist a nation panicking under the sway of their inner crocodiles to reconnect with their cerebral cortices.
Next time, I’ll elaborate on these three components of the art of crocodile management.