“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.” ― Bessel A. van der Kolk, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’
“Aido, what are you doing, man?!? You can’t force flexibility!” Mick said as he rushed back to his client with a heavier set of dumbells. When his session ended, he returned to finish what he was saying. That advice changed my paradigm regarding personal training. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realised before. Essentially, I had been performing weight-bearing exercises with the hope that the exercises would make me more flexible. In this case, it was an overhead squat.
Mick explained that my flexibility problem was more than a mechanical one; it was a mental one. It also provided me with an apt metaphor for the error we make in organisational change programmes and highlights a contributing factor to why so many change efforts fail.
Mechanics and Humanics
I think of organisational change as two parallel tracks. To change what people do, you need to change how people think. In organisational transformation initiatives, you must change mental models to change business models. One change is mechanic: structure, strategy, policies, procedures, remuneration and recognition. The other more complex change is humanic: how people act, interact, communicate and think. It takes time to make these latter changes; they are stubbornly elusive. This is similar to my flexibility challenge. Organisational mental agility is akin to physical functional flexibility.
Cortical Inhibition: Retrain The Brain
Regarding my physical restrictions, forcing the exercise was like forcing a mechanical change. Organisations do this all the time. We digitalise a business model and hope that a digital mindset will follow. We introduce a new product and expect the sales team to jump on board. We introduce a digital communication tool and expect the culture to improve. As we know, there is much more to it. Mechanics do not work without humanics.
There is a reason my movement is restricted. When our bodies encounter trauma, we are physically injured, but our brains also keep a precise record of that injury. Trauma is mechanic and humanic. Long-term specific experiences can induce specific neural and behavioural changes. While we praise the benefits of neuroplasticity, it can turn against us. Because I have been injured many times during my rugby career, my brain has learned to restrict my movements to prevent possible future injury. This is known as cortical inhibition, the nervous system’s response to injury.
Cortical inhibition is the blocking of actions stemming from the cerebral or cerebellar cortexes. The cerebellar cortex receives information from most body parts and other brain regions. The cerebellum integrates this information and sends signals back to the rest of the brain, enabling accurate and well-coordinated movements. Cortical inhibition can limit everything from how a person moves to how they feel, see, and even hear.
It is important to remember that the brain “thinks” it is acting in our best interest but is preventing us from living a fuller life. This goes for holding on to past traumas, unsavoury life events and even epigenetic trauma passed on from generation to generation. We have to work hard to retrain the brain, and what are organisations but a mass of brains working together (or not, as the case may be)?
It will take time, but I have designed my new training regime to rewire my neural circuitry to restore normal function. My humanics will influence my mechanics. Just as I hope to recalibrate my body by retraining my brain, an organisation must address people and processes, mental models and business models, what they do and how their people think. Forcing mechanical change is a fool’s errand. There is always a struggle in any change process, but struggle is a precursor to growth.