Playing the ‘Pain’ Game

There is no question we are in the age of disruption and it seems that everything is ‘innovating’ – the way we work, why we work, the organisations we work in, what we do at work. Start-up organisations (two years old or younger) are being established at a rapid rate with the Australian Innovation System Report (2015) noting that between 2006 – 2011, the activity of start-ups added 1.4 million full-time jobs to the Australian economy. Historically strong performing sectors such as mining, manufacturing and automotive, long regarded as the stalwarts of Australia’s economic fabric, and Australia’s largest corporate brands which have been household names for decades, are being forced to reinvent themselves and do business differently. Many organisations have established internal ‘Transformation’ and/or ‘Change’ functions with budget allocations in the hundreds of millions. Take Seek for example, who recently announced they would spend $100,000 to ‘disrupt itself’ via sponsoring a 12-week program aimed at bringing corporates and start-ups together for mentoring and investment opportunities (Australian Financial Review, 6 February 2017). Furthermore, the establishment of incubators and internal Research & Development functions is becoming common practice in Australia’s largest corporates to ensure a ‘space’ is created and nurtured for ideas and approaches that will hopefully provide immense competitive advantage. Indeed it is a full time job keeping up with the pace of change.


But what does disruption actually look like in action and on a day-to-day basis? Chances are it may look painful and employees may not want to embrace change. Neuroscience research suggests that in response to organisational change, the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ response is activated because of the perceived threat of uncertainty (Harvard Business Review, 2012). More specifically, the amygdala (the emotion centre of the brain) has been shown to be active when people are presented with change stimuli as well as the prefrontal cortex which is fast and agile but when overloaded can generate fatigue, fear and anger (Harvard Business Review, 2012). Chances are disruption may look like a distraction, or confusing and people don’t ‘get it.’ Disruption may look tiring, overwhelming and unnecessary with employees possibly thinking ‘what’s the worst thing that will happen if we don’t change?’


In light of this, how do we ensure that people are comfortable with change? How do we encourage employees to not wait for the crisis to then innovative, but instead be proactive in embracing change? What role do leaders play in this?

  • Creating a ‘psychologically safe’ environment is a key role for any leader in a start up, mid-sized or multinational organisation regardless of what sector they may be in (listed, private sector, Government, not-for-profit). This means creating an environment where all group members believe that the team environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking and all team members have a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up (Edmondson, 1999). The creation of psychologically safe team environments was the key differentiator of Google’s most highly accomplished teams, according to the recently published Project Aristotle findings (New York Times, 2016). When the leader can create a safe, trusting and respectful environment in which people can share wonderful and radical ideas such as how to disrupt and how to prepare for crises that may seem unfathomable, they are fulfilling an enormous component of their role as a modern-day leader.
  • Along the same lines, creating a group environment whereby diversity of thought is embraced is critical to get employees comfortable with the notion of change and disruption. Think of diversity and creating a ‘psychologically safe environment’ as a ‘de-risking’ strategy whereby allowing each person in the group to have their say, you are increasing your chances of identifying more risks to the organisation and possible solutions.
  • The role of the leader ought also be one characterised by working on the business/system, not only in it. This is a key ‘mindset’ that the effective leader must embrace. One’s role as a leader is not only about leading their function and having relevant technical expertise, they also have a role as a leader of the organisation irrespective of the function they are leading and that role should be one of contributing thoughts, ideas and recommendations cross-functionally, i.e., adopting the mindset of the enterprise-wide leader.
  • Leaders must learn three critical skills and be able to draw on these skills with equal emphasis and in a flexible and fit-for-purpose manner:
  1. Advocacy – having a well-informed point of view to explain any change or innovation and to represent the interests of team members when managing upwards.
  2. Enquiry – knowing what questions to ask, how to ask them and being able to draw out information to in turn inform one’s point of view.
  3. Facilitation – being the ‘welcoming host’ of team meetings who gives everyone a chance to contribute ideas, effectively draw together ideas and clearly map out how plans will be delivered.

CLA has recently partnered with a large private Australian organisation to embed influencing and facilitation learning and skills modules across their Supply Chain team. Teaching the key principles of Advocacy, Enquiry and Facilitation to a cohort of 30 leaders, the results of the program included a 20% increase in self-rated skill level (facilitation and influencing skills) pre and post program.


Australian Innovation System Report (2015), published by the Office of the Chief Economist, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Australian Government,  


Australian Financial Review, 6 February 2017, ‘Seek spends $100,000 to disrupt itself.’


Harvard Business Review, 16 October 2012, ‘This is Your Brain on Organizational Change’, McFarland, W.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.  Administrative Science Quarterly, 44, 350-383.

New York Times, 25 February 2016, ‘What Google Learned From its Quest to Build the Perfect Team’, Duhigg, C.

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