Why people can’t see the future


It’s so frustrating for change leaders!

“Why can’t people see the future? It’s so obvious that we need to change – yet the people can’t see that there is a better way!”

This is a cry I often hear from leaders and managers who are trying to implement change or improve things in their organisation. They complain that people don’t “get it” and seem rooted in what they know or their previous experience.

In this three-part series I’ll discuss three of the most common challenges I hear from leaders who seek to implement change:

  • People find it difficult to “see” the future
  • The “burning platform” – so commonly used in change programs – seems to run out of steam very early in the change process
  • It’s hard to engage the majority of people in the change process

This article deals with the first challenge of why people can’t see the future. Our work in neuroscience suggests some reasons for this, and what we might be able to do about it.

Why we can’t see the future 

There are three factors that contribute to people’s inability to see the future – or at least see it as clearly as the change leader.

Our brain is “lazy”: My partner, a psychologist, dislikes this term. Nevertheless, it refers to the brain’s tendency to conserve energy and seek the quickest path from point A to B. Applying the pre-frontal cortex to rational analysis and problem solving takes effort and uses the brain’s limited resources. Accordingly, these scarce resources are only applied in situations where the brain is specifically prompted by a range of cues to slow down and focus on an analysis of the facts.

Research show that much of our thinking is “fast thinking”, a deliberate ploy to conserve the brain’s scarce resources. In this mode, we make decisions based on association and compatibility with pre-established beliefs. Importantly, this thinking – and the decisions that are made in this mode – does not tolerate much uncertainty.

The brain “fills in” any missing information from a given picture or situation in order to make sense of it quickly. This allows us to recognise things quickly and act accordingly. Indeed, much of our decision-making is based on this “fast thinking”, and we are not the rational decision-makers we believe we are!

The brain’s tendency to seek patterns and associate what we see with what we already know – associative memory – makes it very difficult for people to see and understand ideas they have no previous association with. They simply cannot recognise the new pattern in their “fast thinking”mode.

Difference signals danger: The brain has an overarching organising principle to minimise danger and maximise reward. Indeed, it scans the environment every few seconds to achieve this. The brain perceives the threat of danger as five times the promise of reward. From this, we can infer that the brain spends much of its time making sure we are safe from danger or the threat of danger.

Most modern organisations present a greater probability of social pain than physical pain. Social pain is induced by a real or perceived sense of social exclusion, loss of autonomy, and a threat to social relationships. These are typical social threats that are perceived when a picture of a different future is presented or envisaged.

Importantly, the brain registers social pain in a similar way to physical pain, and the brain’s typical response to impending threat or danger is the well-known “fight or flight” phenomenon. In many cases, people are not even aware that they have entered a mild form of this “fight or flight” state. Research shows that this state reduces people’s ability  to think rationally and logically. Productivity, innovation and problem-solving behaviour is affected, and engagement falls. As experience shows, disengaged people become quite transactional in their behaviour and display little discretionary effort in their work.

A different future presents a possible threat to people and this produces a diminished ability to see the logical benefits of a change. This potential change – the future – simply produces an emotional defensiveness and resistance to the change.

We have no memory of the future: At first, this sounds ludicrous – how can we remember something that has not yet happened? However, our memory has important implications for the way we might understand the future, particularly a future we have not yet experienced.

Our long-term memory is the storage for information from previous experiences and learning. Semantic memory is an important part of this memory and stores general knowledge about the world we live in. It is formed by our educational, cultural and social environment. It is concerned with our general “knowing” about the world.

Episodic memory, on the other hand, is formed by specific experiences and events in our lives. It includes the information we have gathered by actually doing things or experiencing different phenomena. For example, your episodic memory would record your experiences of riding a bicycle, whereas your semantic memory would “know” that bicycles are generally ridden in summer wearing helmets, and that there are a range of competitive events for elite cyclists, such as the Tour de France.

Semantic memory stores and retrieves information in networks and classification systems that have been previously established within your brain. Your educational and cultural background will assist in establishing these pathways and structures.

If your semantic memory lacks the necessary networks, pathways and structures, you will be unable to process the information to which you are exposed. In other words, you will not be able to “see” the picture of the future that is presented. Your memory has no access to the information needed to make sense of it.

New pathways and classification systems can be created by way of new insights – i.e. where you recombine existing information in different ways to come to new ways of “knowing”. Insight is a somewhat different process for the brain and I  discuss this later.

How can we help people to see the future? 

Being able to see and conceive of a different future is an important piece of a successful change initiative. We have seen the natural obstacles that exist in this regard, and the insights from neuroscience provide some indication of how we can address this challenge.

I have outlined four initiatives that can assist people to see the future and facilitate more productive engagement in the change process:

  • Promote the use of “slow thinking”
  • Use socially based learning
  • Build semantic memory
  • Balance danger with appropriate reward

Improving our change leadership

I have addressed some of the issues related to the difficulties of seeing the future, and presented some guideline on how we might address these.

Parts 2 of this series will focus on the use of the “burning platform” in change programs and why this approach runs out of steam early in the change process. Part 3 will address the challenge of engagement – and why this is so difficult during a change process.

The challenge of change is significant for those who have stewardship over an organisation in these times. There is much yet to be explored and learned. Many leaders will still prefer the “old, tried and tested” ways of command and control.

But neuroscience presents us with an additional lens through which to view change. It doesn’t claim to be the panacea, but it does provide us some “hard” scientific evidence to support approaches that have been traditionally considered as “soft”.

Download the article here.

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