Neuroplasticity - The Red Zone or the Blue Zone? You have a choice.

It is hard to believe another year has passed, and Lead Change 2019 is only a few weeks away. At Lead Change 2018, Bill Murphy and I presented on Positive Psychology and how it applies to Change Management.  Since then, I continue to learn and train on this topic.   I execute many of these principles with my clients, which have helped them realize success with process changes, organizational realignments, and the introduction of new technology.  In this month’s blog, I want to share some insights on neuroscience and mindfulness and how they apply to these concepts.

I have learned that our brains spend 60 – 70% of time in the “Default Network” or “Narrative Network.” It’s the place where my “committee” is meeting in my head.  Yes, I am admitting the thoughts (i.e., voices) that, when unchecked, tend to be negative and tell me everything that will go wrong.  We do not want to admit these thoughts, but they are there; it’s how we perceive and handle them that drives our wellbeing.

From my own experience, we CAN make ourselves aware of these negative thoughts. Dr. Daniel Amen, a doctor who practices as a psychiatrist and a brain disorder specialist, and an author of several books on the brain, call these negative thoughts -- A.N.T.s (Automatic Negative Thoughts).   The good news is we can manage them and not allow them to distract or derail our intentions.

A method I use for myself and my clients is a concept I learned from Susan Britton of The Academies. I worked with Susan and her team for my ICF ACC (Associate Certified Coach) certification.  And I work with Susan on a professional level to help me be a better leader, coach, friend, and husband.  A tool she introduced and one I love to use is the Red Zone / Blue Zone -- “What state are you living in?”  According to Susan, it’s a model that captures what happens to us physiologically and emotionally when our brains perceive circumstances as stress.  (Note the emphasis on the verb choice here -- perceive!)

Below is a chart that outlines this concept, which I share with project teams and individuals to help them build awareness of their current state. Are they in fight-flight-freeze, frantic-fearful-frustrated state, which is Red Zone?  Or, are they in the Blue Zone? A mindset where they experience: flow-flourish, peace-possibility, calm-connect, create-confident. 

I often share Susan’s chart [found above, with permission] with individuals and teams and ask what zone are they in today? When someone says they are in the red, I ask permission to explore deeper.  I ask questions that help us understand their thinking and concerns.  I may suggest we both take several deep breaths, and together we identify facts versus perceptions.

It is essential to help teams work through stress. We all know, a new process, a new application, a new team, a new boss, can be triggers of stress to employees, stakeholders, and executives.  Our brains are wired to protect us.  When threatened by a predator, the brain experiences a spike in cortisol and adrenalin to position us to fight, flee, or freeze.  Our brain is in survival mode.  However, in today's modern world, "predators" could be perceived as a new workflow, new technology, a new organizational structure, or a new boss. These "threats" are issues Change Management professionals need to address as we implement the future state.

When we help individuals and teams out of the Red Zone, we move their brains away from the narrative network. Another technique is one I call the 4 C's, for Connection, Collaboration, Creativity, and Compassion, and it helps move one’s mind into the “Experiential Network”; the place where we notice things intentionally.  It’s something Susan has me do with my work and personal life.  They are the following:

  • Connection – make an effort to connect with other colleagues, mentors, family, and friends that can offer support and guidance.
  • Collaboration – build upon connections for problem-solving, ideation, and learning.
  • Creativity – imagine new ways to solve the problem and become part of the solution.
  • Compassion – forgive yourself and be open to learn and grow from your character defects. Extend that compassion to others, as well.

When we run our minds into the Experiential Network, we are present and aware of our surroundings. We are not imagining scenarios where people are out to get us.  We are on-course, self-aware and that information is coming in through our five senses.  When we start to move into the Blue Zone, our neurochemicals – dopamine, oxytocin, and more – help us feel better.  We are happy, and we feel safe and can move into a compassionate, creative, and connected state — a place where teams can start to embrace change and look forward to the future state.

In closing, there is a way to manage the A.N.T.s and flourish in the experiential state. Work on being present.  Do things with intention and be aware of the Red and the Blue Zones.  You and your teams will go back and forth from the "never-ending silent narrative" that we create.  It's what you do with that narrative that matters.  Focus on the positive, get involved, and be creative.  Get the happy juices flowing and enjoy the moment.  The Blue Zone is a much better place to keep your teams in and help move them to a future state. 

Authored by:  Michael Robinson, ACMP NE Board Member

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  1. Bill Murphy

    Oct. 25, 2019

    Thanks for sharing, Michael! I’m just leaving from Slalom Consulting’s 2-day Organizational Effectiveness Summit in Toronto, where many aspects of what your blog highlights were reinforced by the global leaders in our firm for this capability. Using simple, practical techniques to slow down our brains, focus on the present moment, and really connect with whomever we’re with is a good approach for being effective, and staying sane!


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