When Someone Else’s Experience Turns Yours into a Nightmare!

One of the most powerful ways we learn is from the experiences and challenges of others and how they dealt with them. It’s why we love stories about what happened to our friends, bosses, co-workers, colleagues, role models, coaches, mentors, even strangers. It is why cultures are built on stories. It is one of the reasons we watch reality TV, films about real events, real people and why we read biographies.

From real life examples, especially if they have high emotional content, we learn what to do and what not to do faster than any text book can ever teach us.

And this should strike a note of great concern to those of you who are implementing change.

‘Jaws’ and other bad news for sharks

When I am speaking at conferences or running workshops I sometimes include a story about a pretty scary scuba diving experience that Mark and I had. Some of you may have heard it.

I tell it to make the point that even in a challenging life threatening situation, when your amygdala is automatically trying to dominate your actions to ‘save’ you, it sometimes gets it wrong and you can over-ride it. It’s one of those situations that if you do what your amygdala wants you to do, you could in fact do yourself more harm – the very opposite of what theoretically the amygdala is there to do.

In work or other non-life threatening situations, this is The Almond Effect® – those moments when we act on our amygdala’s immediate urge to ‘protect’ us from a wrongly perceived threat instead of stopping and thinking about what’s logically best to do in the situation.

You know what I mean – the instant email reply we send and then regret, an immediate negative response to a job applicant because they look like someone we don’t like, ‘snapping’ at a co-worker or even worse, your boss.

You’ll have to come to one of my sessions to know what the story is (it’s better told than written) but one of the unintended consequences I get concerned about is that someone in my audience gets frightened of sharks or of scuba diving or has their trepidations reinforced – the last thing I want to do.

Psst! – Pass it on

So why does this happen? How can a person in the audience become afraid when it is *my* experience that I’m telling. The audience member may never have even snorkelled let alone scuba dived.

Well, an article in the March 2007 issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience throws some light on a phenomenon that we’ve probably noticed many times, even perhaps experienced ourselves – that we can become frightened and fearful of something that happened to someone else even though it hasn’t happened to us. I still don’t like plastic shower curtains because of the film Psycho.

The authors of the study carried out an experiment and concluded that the amygdala responds not only when fear is learned first-hand through our own personal experiences but is also triggered when we see someone else afraid. In other words we can also learn fear second-hand by seeing someone else’s fear.

Why isn’t this baby afraid of the snake?

Think about it yourself. Is there anything that you are afraid of that you have not directly experienced? For example I know one woman who is afraid of birds simply because her mother was.

Have a look at this picture from FreakingNews.com

Now this baby isn’t scared of snakes. The baby isn’t old enough to have seen someone else be frightened of snakes, to witness someone else’s fear. So as it is not being hurt itself, it is not afraid.

But what will happen when the baby grows up? Even if the person is never ever harmed by a snake, will it learn from others to fear them? A high probability I suspect.

On the other hand think about Bindi Irwin. Maybe she ‘learned’ from her father Steve not to be afraid of dealing with dangerous animals. It will be interesting when the neuroscientists discover how we can learn not to be afraid without using drugs or having brain surgery.

If you are interested I can talk about recent research that has implications for ‘turning off’ or removing specific fears/memories in a future article. Let me know.

Implications for implementing change

One of the key reasons that change initiatives fail is because of the history of change in the organisation. If change, or an element of it, has been poorly implemented previously – and even though you didn’t do it and/or you may not even have been there at the time – people who had that poor experience remember it and tell others and this can make life difficult for you if you have responsibility for implementing change.

As we know, people are not usually reluctant to share their fears and concerns with colleagues as soon as they become aware of, or even sense rightly or wrongly, that a change is on the way. The rumour machine is very powerful.

This sharing too is natural – a way of protecting the ‘tribe’ or group to which you belong. Think again of the opposite – when people do not share potentially dangerous or damaging information with someone because they are not one of ‘us’. Or worse because they are not one of ‘us’, we are happy to let them fall in harm’s way.

Addressing emotions is critical

The reported study suggests that indirectly attained fears may be as powerful as fears originating from direct experiences.

In my work I find that most people are reluctant to voice their fears directly with their managers. But just because they don’t raise them doesn’t mean to say they are not there. Nor does it prevent people from sharing their fears with their colleagues, in fact they are more likely to. If the fears are not addressed then in next to no time you have overt or covert resistance to your change effort.

Spending time reviewing the fears of employees based on past experiences of change is a critical element in eliminating one of the factors that cause resistance, fears based on previous experiences that may not even be their own.

This study reinforces what we already know – that for successful change we need to focus on emotional reactions especially fear. Yet how many communications about change still focus on the logic of the change? The rational arguments?

How many managers still don’t take time to find out what fears their employees may have about an impending change and really address them?

The next time someone says to you that there isn’t time to spend time attending to people’s fear of things that will or may never happen, or were in the past, tell them about this study. Remind them that people will share their fears and that without intervention, one person’s fears may quickly become the real fears and the cause of resistance of many.