Farrar's Faucet: A psychologist’s candid, productive and often humorous take on principled business behavior and better business outcomes.

Earning the Attention of a Prehistoric Brain

One of my colleagues recently created a blog posting with this title.  You can see Terri's article here.  Her point, from a trainer's perspective, is that brains are wired to ignore the repetitive and regular and pay attention to the unexpected and irregular. 

Psychologists call ignoring the background sensations habituation, and paying attention to what is new and different vigilance.  Our brains are quite primitive this way…they work much the way a dinosaur's brain worked.

How does knowing this help a principled leader?

I'm currently working with a client where we are half way through an 18 month culture change project across their organization.  One of the ways we are making the culture change stick is to use habituation and vigilance to our advantage.

When we first introduced the change we used as many different communication channels as we could.  We also had as many different customizations as possible for each of the audiences.  Each time the managers and staff saw the themes from the change process pop up in a memo, staff meeting or handout they thought "Ah, here's that thing again."  With every twist in the communication they looked at the changes and thought about what it meant for them.

Once the change was successfully introduced we started finding a common language and reinforcing a common mindset among the staff by repeating the same materials.  Over time the managers and staff no longer thought of what we were doing as "change", it just became "the way we do things around here".

We got the staff and managers to be vigilant about the changes coming their way, and habituated to the idea that change is natural.

Terri's article is a great look at the concept for improving training outcomes.  I also use the concept with my clients as one of the ways to help them make meaningful changes stick.

(You can also make people hyper-vigilant.  That's when the changes and novelty are coming so quickly, and the anxiety level is raised so high that people pay too much attention to paying attention, and become frozen into inaction).

There are principles that underlie each of the states of vigilance, habituation and hyper-vigilance.
When we work with someone responsible for making a change initiative work we help them answer the question:  "When do I need to be novel and different with this message, when do I need to make sure it's more of the same, and when is enough, enough?"


Terri Cheney said...

Thank you so much, David, for such positive mention of my post! I like very much the new direction you took the idea. Hadn't thought about applying it to culture change before.

David Farrar said...

There are a lot of common principles that underlie the work we each do.

What I like about what you do is that you apply sound principles of behavior to the training work for your clients in unexpected ways. That brings a lot of value, and I think that's what clients expect from us.