Learning In A Downturn
The science… and the reality!
By Paul Peters
“Impending or actual change lowers self-esteem and the ability to cope with change, just at the time when we most need to learn” Hanlon’s Paradox*1 states.
Today’s financial crisis and its impact on organisational profits and change couldn’t be more effective in lowering self-esteem. There is strong evidence to suggest that when the brain perceives a threat in the environment it closes down our thinking and responds intuitively from the most primitive part of our brain the Amygdala. The Amygdala stimulates the production of hormones that actually divert the blood supply from the higher centres of reasoning in the brain to the major muscle groups in preparation for a fight-or-flight response.
To state the obvious, fear lowers self-esteem! This is what Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence*2 called an ‘Amygdala hijack’. So when your department is being reorganised, when your job is put at risk, or if you are facing financial worries at home its likely that many employees will be experiencing low level Amygdala hijacks much of the time. As Abraham Maslow*3 so clearly stated that higher order self actualisation needs like learning, growth and fulfillment of potential will be completely subordinated when an individuals physical, safety and security needs have been undermined. The brain, you see, cannot differentiate between a physical threat and a social/ emotional threat. So it really doesn’t matter that the risk you associate with having to move job role is nowhere as significant as the risk associated with, lets say, base jumping. Your biology reacts as if the risk were the same - well not absolutely the same - but you take my point. Change actually does ‘dumb us down.’
So, send in 12 worried delegates who in the last two weeks have been informed that their roles are at risk in a downturn reorganisation process and I am met with a range of reactions from downright hostile to massively eager. You might have expected the former but the latter of these two reactions to change, which was in fact a desperate attempt to show willingness to embrace the change and safeguard their job, was unexpected. Either way, not much learning went on. OK we went through the motions, round Kolb’s Learning Cycle*4. We went with experience, reflection and theory, but the willingness to let the material impact them at an attitudinal level, to be emotionally connected to the possibilities some of the most transformational theory offers them? No not a sausage. Perhaps in the fullness of time I hope they will have an opportunity to revisit our work together and let it affect them in the way it was intended.
The three days away were a useful distraction from some from the toxic atmosphere back at the office where reorganisation is the only topic of conversation. So learning and development has been transformed into a displacement activity for nearly redundant executives on this occasion. As the programme evolved I found that embracing this purpose for delegates and going with it was far more functional that trying to hammer through the agenda set by Head Office. Sometimes you have to stop the process and listen to what’s on their minds even if you do lose three quarters of a day. You know when emotions are expressed they often die birthing. Ignore them at your peril. They otherwise lie repressed in the room, bubbling to the surface at the coffee break or the in the syndicate room. Often the facilitator represents the authority figure and attracts all the negative transference*5 for some and the idealised saviour for others, either way its not good for learning when people are looking for a scapegoat for their feelings or someone who can fix their distress for them. Challenging times not only for business, but for developers too. If the investment in learning and development (which represents an event bigger investment in these straightened times) is to provide value for money then as developers it is incumbent upon us to have even more skills at our disposal. So brace yourself and be trained and ready for group therapy!