Leading Through Change Part 2: Social bonds and safe fails


21 December 2016


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In my last blog, “Leading through change – The only certainty is uncertainty " I reflected on the brain’s dislike of uncertainty, and the tendency for this to trigger a threat response. Here I consider what this means in practice: How can business leaders create an environment where people can thrive in the face of uncertainty?

Since the environment we live and work in seems unlikely to be anything other than ‘VUCA’, surely it’s time we learned to deal with it? The good news from recent neuroscience research is that the brain responds more positively to expected uncertainty1.There are two things that seem inevitable in this context, one driven by the context itself and one by the nature of the human condition.

The inevitability of failure

In rapidly changing, uncertain times we need to ensure people aren’t paralysed by fear of failure. Chances are, doing nothing will ultimately lead to failure - the classic ‘strategic drift’2; a growing mismatch emerging between the external and internal rates of change. To empower people to act during uncertain times, we need to accept that mistakes may happen.

Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School outlines a spectrum of reasons for failure3, from deviance, to inattention, to lack of ability, to process complexity and uncertainty. Leaders need to spot the difference, and treat failures caused by complexity and uncertainty differently. In her words:  

“When I ask executives to consider this spectrum and then to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits—perhaps 2% to 5%. But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70% to 90%.” 3

How failures are treated determines how people will operate under uncertainty, both directly and indirectly, through the type of culture this creates.

The drive to connect

Humans are social animals; being socially connected has the evolutionary benefit of increasing your chances of survival (and in the modern day, success at work). So strong is this drive, that the brain responds to social separation in the same way it does to physical pain4,5.

Not only are we are wired to be social, but just as the brain interprets uncertainty as a threat, it interprets social connectedness as a sign of safety6. So, despite the difficulty of providing employees with certainty in a ‘VUCA’ context, what leaders can do is encourage and enable employees to connect. We also have a basic drive to make sense of the world around us7. Arguably, it’s what sets humans apart from other mammals: Throw a ball for a dog and it will run after it, throw a ball for a human and they’ll ask why you threw the ball! In many ways, Chris Rodgers’ work on informal coalitions8 captures both the drive to connect and to understand, also emphasising that this often happens informally:

“…people get together and ‘make things up’ – making sense of what is going on and, through this relational process, decide what things mean and how they will act... Most…take place informally… water-cooler gossip; corridor conversations; private discussions; social exchanges; and so on.”9

As Chris argued:

“…it is important for managers to recognise that they are both in control and not in control at the same time. The challenge then becomes one of embracing this paradox; understanding and actively engaging with the ‘real-world’ messiness of everyday organisational life, not seeking to deny or somehow eliminate it”.9



1Yu & Dayan (2005). Uncertainty, Neuromodulation, and Attention, Neuron, 46, 681–692.

2Johnson. (1988). Rethinking Incrementalism, Strategic Management Journal, 9, 75-91.

3Edmondson (2011). Strategies for Learning from Failure, Harvard Business Review, April 2011.

4Eisenberger & Lieberman (2005). Why it hurts to be left out: The neurocognitive overlap between physical and social pain. In Williams, Forgas, & von Hippel (Eds.), The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection, and Bullying (pp. 109-127). New York: Cambridge University Press.

5Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams (2003). Science, Oct 10, 302 (5643): 290-2.

6See: Eisenberger (2013). Social ties and health: A social neuroscience perspective, Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23(3), 407–413.

7Lawrence & Norhira. (2001). Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices. San Fransico, CA: Jossey-Bass.

8Rodgers (2007). Informal coalitions: mastering the hidden dynamics of organizational change. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

9Rodgers (2010). Coalitions, conversations and complexity - the challenge of change in the public sector, The International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, 6(4), 31-37

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