Posted by: knightbird | March 7, 2016

Denial: It’s The Human Brain’s Normal Condition

As many of you who read my posts know, I have been advocating for Lean Management in Alaska, in its many iterations, since 2005. At my first CEO position, I learned about and started to implement the system in 2004, and had great results. Because I had already learned how our brain resists negative information, I was skeptical about even our reported results and implemented a system of factual reporting. We fostered a culture of “Problems are Treasures” and created a “Treasure Chest” for parking improvement projects. And there were a lot of them, as I have reported on extensively through the years.

After 8 years of Lean implementation, I was still learning about measuring improvements but left the organization before having a chance to fully experiment with true lean workplace management.  By then, we had an extensive portfolio of successes. I have subsequently had plenty of time to think about resistance to Lean as I have successively pitched the system to private businesses, Native Corporations, Health Care, School Districts, Municipalities and the State of Alaska. It’s a very hard sell, and for personal solace and comfort (I wanted to know why I was such a poor salesperson), I followed a path of research into the workings of the human brain.

Lean was not the sole reason for this research. My other passion is health care, and in health care there is also heavy resistance to change.

Here is what I believe we are so resistant to change. There are 2 primary prongs of resistance. The first is by those who have successfully “gamed” the existing system. This includes most executives. I am not using gaming in a negative sense, but as a category of individuals who figure out the existing system and become proficient at using it. In the Virginia Mason culture, they used to call these individuals “Capes.” You know, “Here I come to save the day.” (from the Mighty Mouse cartoons) The other category are the preservationists. They like the status quo. Change upsets them, and they resist it covertly while attempting to appear to comply with change efforts. An they have become good at it. They know that all they need to do is outlast their boss and the bosses above for enough time and they can go back to what they used to do. I had one executive like this who cooperated externally but resisted internally. After terminating this executive, I discovered extensive research on their computer looking for dirt to throw at me, things like Alaska Bar Association discipline proceedings, Alaska Court System filings—whatever could be used for political ammunition. The same process was followed by a local group at my second position as a CEO.

Our whole lives are spent accumulating knowledge, most of the time the wrong kind. There is a lot of “Conventional Wisdom” in the workplace. But as my pitching Sensei told me of Conventional Wisdom over a decade ago, it is neither “conventional” nor is it “wisdom.” They are stories, tales and fabrications that support our world view of personal competence. A lot of what we know is what we have been told or taught by people we trust. If we accept what they are telling us, we don’t need to spend a lot of time researching and learning. And the human condition, being about survival, tends to act cautiously by only listening to those we trust, and to pass survival information down from generation to generation through this mechanism of trust. Many of our institutions put people in positions of trust regardless of their abilities. They are called Politicians—individuals without solid business management skills, but great political survival skills. I often hear this referred to as

The brain itself has many mechanisms designed to facilitate our survival. Those mechanisms permeate workplaces both as habit and organizational routine. We do things because that’s the way they have always been done. And bad leaders perpetuate the culture of no change or slow change.

After researching the ability of our brain to reject truthful information in order to realize the meaning that we have given to our circumstances (something I often refer to as “Culture”), I see the wisdom for spending time with all of our staff, observing behaviors, discussing how work is accomplished, coaching, teaching and mentoring. It’s our job as a CEO to overcome the denial, and the first step is the dissemination of factual knowledge about Lean Management.

But in order to serve them effectively, I now believe we need to do 2 things: (1) overcome their denial, scientifically; and (2) allow them to put together a management pathway with hope as a major driver. It appears that the absence of hope is one reason we enter into denial. What I am researching is the potential for substituting a healing hope for the type of hope that leads to denial. I refer to it as “Change Management.”

Introducing new knowledge the right way can have a powerful impact on your brain and its ability to accept a path to changing. Denial is the enemy. Why do we so forcefully deny data and newly accepted knowledge, like Dr. Deming 14 Points and the Toyota Production System? There are a variety of reasons that I will discuss today.

Denial has been researched extensively. For example, the Dunning Kruger Effect (DKE) is a “Cognitive Bias” through “which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is.” [WIKIPEDIA LINK] Dunning and Kruger wrote “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.” [LINK HERE] In a nutshell, we believe we are better than we really are. That’s why, when you go through a performance evaluation at work, you are oftentimes shocked. You believe you are above average. Some who are in fact highly competent underestimate their abilities because they overestimate the ability of others. They incorrectly assume that everyone else they compete with have the same or better competencies that they do.

Once we have a confirmation bias, we tend to seek out information and people that support our bias. We dismiss non conforming information because it is inconsistent with our illusion. In other cases, we believe we are the part of normal that doesn’t suffer problems. So if 40% of marriages end in divorce, we are going to be part of the 60% that doesn’t. We err on the side of the hopeful part of whatever behaviors we are considering. We continue to deny any suggestion that our performance as an organization is less than the best. It’s DKE in action, and it makes us resistant to any suggestion that we might need a new management system. Our brains select the most hopeful path for us. One memorable comment from a woman who had listened to one of my presentations on Lean Management in 2007 was both humorous and sad. She complimented my presentation, then said that it could sure benefit a sister organization located near them, but that her organization was doing just fine. True story, and one I have heard many times.

And once our brain selects a hopeful path, we see support for that position everywhere. It’s called the “Frequency Illusion,” scientifically referred to as the Baader Meinhof Complex. [LINK HERE] It describes how a concept you were just made aware of starts to appear everywhere. Dr. Arnold Zwicky identifies a number of Baader Meinhof Complexes: Recency Illusion; Antiquity Illusion; and Frequency Illusion. [LINK HERE] Our mind convinces us that certain patterns we see are true. And with frequency comes comfort and a resistance to change.

I see this within organizations. We have always done it this way, so it must be the best way. Nelson and Winter coined a phrase to describe this: “Organizational Routine.” A general description is “the relatively mindless repetition of actions that have been well-established via evolution or voluntary design of an individual that is not a participant to it.” {LINK HERE} We use habits because the effort required to think uses a lot of our brains limited capacity and huge even requirements. After all, that 3 pound brain is about 2% of total average body weight but uses between 20 and 25% of your bodies consumption of glucose and oxygen. Once routines have been habituated, they are difficult to change.

So how do we incorporate a willingness to change in the minds and habits of trauma burdened adults? Taki Sharot shares some advice in this TED TALK. We basically share knowledge about the impact of change through creating hope (preservation of jobs, fewer crises, more security)  and move the participant to their own pathway for change. This concept is used in the realm of Psychology as “Motivational Interviewing” [LINK HERE] and in business as “Humble Inquiry.” [LINK HERE] For Motivational Interviewing, the concept for Motivational interviewing is “a directive, client-centered counseling style for eliciting behavior change by helping clients to explore and resolve ambivalence. “ For business, Humble Inquiry is: “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

For this reason, Change Management tis a priority requirement for any Lean Management initiative. And as I have written about before, in general terms you will have 20% of your employees open and willing to change, 20% heavily resistant and 60 percent waiting to see which side wins. Next time I will share a strategy for winning over that 60%. And as always, I would like to hear your thoughts.


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