Jun 3, 2007

Plastic brains and individual differences

Jon Miller discussed memory, learning and Taiichi Ohno’s reputation for yelling at people a few days ago, drawing on the work of Eric Kandel, a giant in the field of brain plasticity. I want to expand on Jon’s post with a story...

It’s raining hard in a Midwest suburb, and the street is beginning to flood, for the second time in a month. As the water level rises to the curb, you observe the following behaviors:

Person A runs out to the water, wades in and starts jumping around and laughing. Person A hears a loud voice and goes back in the house, grumbling.

Person B goes to the garage, puts on some rubber boots, takes a rake, and wades into the water muttering.

Person C watches from the house, shudders at the loud voice directed at Person A, but continues watching Person B.

Person D rushes to the garage, gets an axe, rushes up the stairs to the second story of the house and climbs into the attic. Person D starts whacking a hole in the roof in a panic.

What just happened in the brains of these people?

Person A is a small child. The loud voice is the child’s mother, yelling at the child to get back in the house, saying “I don’t care what your father let you do last time! You’re not going out in that water!” The child was just following a learned process, and was being yelled at for doing it the wrong way. The yelling caused emotional and cognitive changes in the brain, with some resistance, but a bit of fear as well.

Person B is muttering, “If I’d cleared the debris out of the storm drain after the last flood, this wouldn’t be happening now.” Person B starts raking sticks and leaves out of the gutter and the flood rapidly drains away. Person B had noticed an opportunity for improvement, the need for better preventive maintenance, and was now learning from experience about the inconvenience when you don’t engage in continuous improvement.

Person C is a child. Last time the street flooded, the child’s father dragged the child into the house and beat the child for playing in the water. The child re-experienced the trauma when the other child’s mother expressed anger. Continued abuse over time, is systematically changing the child’s brain to respond with fear to any number of emotional triggers in everyday situations.

Person D moved into the neighborhood last week, and was a survivor of the hurricanes in New Orleans. Person D had been trapped, helpless, in an attic for two days before being rescued. The floodwater covered the floor of the attic itself and Person D had had to pile up old furniture to stay above it. Person D had suffered extreme situational trauma and the sight of the rising water and the sound of the rain created a panic that hijacked the brain and caused what seemed like a bizarre action.

I’m leaving out a lot of science here, and encourage you to read Kandel’s work along with that of Joseph LeDoux and Martin Seligman. But think about change in the workplace.

One person grumbles when a new rule is imposed. (Let’s be really unfair and propose that this is a man whose wife always says you have to hit him over the head with a verbal 2x4 to get him to listen.)

Direct experience teaches another person the commonsense aspect of changing maintenance and housekeeping processes.

A third is frightened of almost any change, as well as of the loud noises of the factory and gruff interactions among other workers. He or she has learned to hide the symptoms and needs the job, but has to feel emotionally safe in order to learn to do something different.

The fourth may have witnessed a severe workplace accident, been in a tragic car accident, or faced another strong and immediate threat to life and limb. People are aware of the person’s distress, but aren’t sure what to do about it. They see that the person has difficulty learning or even paying attention, but they remember the excellent work the person did before the event and hope time will take care of the problem. This person is going to feel better as any unsafe conditions in the plant are found and remedied. Helping the person get professional PTSD treatment would be warranted.

You can imagine other scenarios for yourself.

The point is NOT that we should play amateur psychiatrist, but to keep in our own memory that people respond to change differently. No matter how many “Managing Change” seminars we go to, each of these people will learn in a different way and take a different amount of time to do it. Following Dr. Deming’s rule to “Drive out fear,” may be a better general policy than Mr. Ohno’s yelling. (Except for Person A, that is, and we all know one.) Consistency of message, reinforcement by example and experience, attention to safety, and time all work together to change neural connectivity in people’s brains. Think about it.

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