Any transformation starts with the individual – and digital transformations are no exception

With any transformation, digital or otherwise, the hardest thing to change is ourselves

In the previous articles exploring the key elements of a successful digital transformation, we identified the need to include the psychological dimension in the change process. Not only can a psychological approach help us to understand why employees sometimes seem to behave, or react to change, in an irrational way – it can also enable us to proactively influence this behavior in line with company strategy.

To gain an even deeper understanding, in this article we would like to discuss certain aspects of human behavior, and give you a few pointers on how to influence these behaviors.

In the context of individual mindsets, which we discussed in the last article, there are three key elements which influence our behavior – and if we are aware of these elements, this can enable us to respond to change in a more considered manner, exercising a greater degree of free will and independence. These are:

  • Our own “red buttons”– i.e. our stress triggers
  • Our personal values and priorities
  • The connection between our own values and the company’s purpose

Our “red buttons”

This refers to our psychological and/or physical reaction to specific external factors that trigger the so-called “flight, flight or freeze” response – we can also call this stress. It’s important to realize that your response to these external triggers is due to your personal interpretation of the situation; in other words, if you were to interpret the situation differently, this would give you a different approach for dealing with the stress. Gaining this insight is an essential prerequisite for developing a better way of coping with stress. If we are aware of our own “red buttons” – usually these are situations, people or certain behaviors in others that trigger stress responses – this is the first step towards finding an alternative response. Even if we can’t always reflect on our behavior in the heat of the moment, at least we can reflect on it afterwards and ask ourselves: how could I have responded to that situation in a calmer, more constructive way?

That’s easily said – but reinterpreting stress factors to identify a behavior that is “appropriate” to the situation is not so easy. Why is that? To answer this, we need to take a brief detour into the realm of biology, to understand how our brains work. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains consist of three parts, which have evolved over millions of years: a primitive reptile brain, a more developed mammal brain and, finally, the primate brain. All three parts of our brain are connected, but they often work separately from each other, or even “pull” us in different directions.

The three parts of our brain can be described as follows:

  1. Our “reptile brain” controls our vital functions, as well as our “fight, flight or freeze” response to perceived danger. This is an immediate, rapid response to some form of stimulus, without any form of conscious reflection or adjustment. We often experience this as a direct physical response, and only later do we become aware of the actual trigger (once we have had a chance to reflect on the situation with the cerebral part of our brain).
  2. Our “mammal brain” is where our emotions sit. This is where the primary emotions, common to all humans, are generated: joy, surprise, fear, sadness and disgust – these form the essential basis of our existence. The emotional extremes of love and hate are often located in this part of the brain. Kahneman groups the reptile brain and the mammal brain together under “System 1” (see article from 13 September 2019: “Digital transformation as psychological transformation – an INside job”.
  3. Our “primate brain” is the part we use to evaluate a situation applying logic and rationality (see Kahneman’s “System 2), using our cognitive abilities; this enables us to plan what to do next, or to form a strategy. This part of the brain processes impulses and information from the other two parts, enabling us to make practical, ethical and intelligent decisions.

In the ideal situation, all three systems work together in harmony. But as soon as we become stressed, the two older parts of our brain (older from an evolutionary point of view) take over the controls, and our actions are predominantly steered by these basic functions – which, to put it simply, are programmed to ensure our survival. As soon as we anticipate danger, the amygdala takes over – this is a small, almond-shaped cluster of nuclei located in the mammal brain. This is why psychologists often speak of an “amygdala hijack”. As soon as this hijack has taken place, the logical part of our primate brain, the part that enables us to analyze and consider, mostly switches off – because in a survival situation, we usually don’t have time for reflection. While this function may have been useful 100,000 years ago, when our ancestors were frequently confronted with immediately life-threatening situations, in current times this system is often too easily triggered and robs us of the ability to respond to a perceived stress situation in a more appropriate way – unless we are aware of this function of our brain, and have learned to deal with it.

For example, if we can identify the feelings that arise in us in the heat of the moment naming them and consciously step back and take a deep breath, over time this can enable us to control our automatic stress triggers – and even recondition our responses. This is an essential skill for managers and leaders – because otherwise, by activating their own stress triggers, their negative emotions will – unintentionally – trigger the red buttons of their employees, unleashing additional stress throughout the organization. When employees are stressed, they are no longer able to come up with the creative, innovative ideas required of them.

 Our personal values and priorities

As well as our biology and the stress triggers discussed above, our behavior and perceptions are influenced by a number of other factors – both internal (from ourselves) and external (from our environment). When it comes to making long-term changes to our perceptions and behavior, both as individuals and in the context of the company, we need to approach this on a level that will be effective in the long term. In the internal context, this relates primarily to our attitudes or mindsets, which are closely connected to our fundamental needs, and which are defined in terms of our own personal values and beliefs. Accordingly, values are a tried and proven lever for change, because they generally encompass a person’s focus and energies at the subconscious level.

In light of this, as a leader, it is imperative that you are aware of your own values and beliefs, because these will constantly influence your approach and your decision-making. Do you know your own primary values, and can you place them in order of importance? Are you aware of the beliefs and trade-offs associated with your values? And do you know how your personal values tie in with the values of your company?

Gaining a deeper understanding of our own values helps us to live by them and put them into practice in a more constructive way. Because any value can only fully come into its own when placed in a dynamic balance with other values – and provided it is not subject to exaggeration or distorted perceptions. We will look at this problem next.

For example, the value trust – a basic prerequisite for successful teamwork – can be understood in terms of a dynamic interaction between its opposite pole, the value of caution. Seen in this way, values constitute polarities, which need to be managed. If taken to an extreme, trust quickly becomes naivety – and by the same token, excessive caution can turn into a control mania, and in extreme cases it can even become paranoia. This is why the Schulz von Thun Value and Development Square, a model for explaining values, is rooted in the conviction that for each of our personal values, formed around our personal peculiarities, there is a sister value, or an opposite pole, which we can develop internally. Accordingly, undesirable distortions in our values can arise when the opposite pole is insufficiently developed. However, value distortions most commonly occur due to our associated beliefs, which are fed from our personal experience and our socialization. These beliefs influence how we interpret our values, and can lead to behaviors based on misconceptions or a distorted perspective that are inappropriate for the given situation. Reflecting on and consciously questioning our own beliefs and those of the team and organization can help us to recognize and free ourselves from “outdated” or obstructive beliefs, or to reinterpret them,  so as to put our values into practice in a more effective way – which, at the end of the day, enables us to behave more appropriately in the situations we are confronted with. On the personal level, this enables individuals to develop in a constructive, values-based direction which is favourable to the company strategy. On the collective level, this is how a more supportive culture is formed.


Dynamic balance of values and the associated behaviors (adapted from Bernhard Possert)
Figure 1: Dynamic balance of values and the associated behaviors (adapted from Bernhard Possert)

My connection to the company’s purpose and values

Once I have become aware of my own values and priorities, and am guided by them, the last step is to make a conscious connection between my personal values compass and the direction, or the purpose, of the company. To what extent my own values coincide with the (current or future) purpose and values of the company is an important and fascinating question. It requires a process of exploration which generates the appropriate answer, promoting the development of new neural connections and enabling us to deal with the challenges that face us in the work environment in a more open, more fulfilling manner.

At the end of the day, all of the elements described above in relation to the individual level (stress triggers, values and our personal connection to the company’s purpose), can also be seen as a basis and prerequisite for better engaging with the company’s (new) direction at the collective level – in order to meet the technological challenges posed by digitalization in a more cohesive, more inspired and ultimately more successful way.

Transformations-Programme für Menschen in Organisationen zu entwerfen und zu begleiten ist meine Leidenschaft. Seit über 30 Jahren unterstütze ich Führungspersönlichkeiten und MitarbeiterInnen dabei, ihr persönliches Potential und das Ihrer Unternehmen zu entfalten. Es begeistert und erfüllt mich jeden Tag aufs Neue, mit psychologischen Einsichten und Methoden zum Erfolg von Menschen und Organisationen beizutragen. Als Managing Partner der aergon ag – inside-out leadership, mit einem Team von 12 PsychologInnen transformieren wir Kulturen nachhaltig.

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