Any transformation, whether organizational or individual, requires a transition, a mandatory passage, sometimes accompanied by suffering and psychological distress.

But do we have to go through some form of distress or suffering before we dare to create real change? What role does suffering play in this process and is it sustainable? How can managers and human resources executives support sustainable change in our workforce? The following paragraphs will attempt to answer all of these questions using key concepts from positive psychology and neuroscience, such as the role of emotions on the brain and behaviour.

Career development: a blessing in disguise?

I’ll always remember the story of this director who, during the first years in his new management position, suffered enormously. Like many others, he was promoted because he was a good team player and, having served the company for many loyal years , he was offered a management position. However, transitioning from successful employee to manager is never easy, and after numerous managerial delays, he finally asked for help to support him in this professional adventure. Afterwards, he trained with other managers to improve his management skills through a leadership training program. Was he forced to suffer before seeking help?


Knowing how to interpret the body’s ills…

Pain and stress tend to be signs that should not be overlooked,  that the situation is not only a cause for concern, but also one that requires special attention. Among others, Richard Boyatzis, researcher and expert psychologist in emotional intelligence, behaviour change, and cognitive science refers to this state, or negative impression, as a Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA). NEA is a condition generally associated with stress, nervousness, and at times, defensiveness. NEA is linked to the fight or flight response (resist or run away). When this happens, we often experience tightness in the throat, jaw, shoulder heaviness and especially a sharp spike in blood pressure and breathing. The body is preparing for battle. The blood rushes to the large muscle groups in preparation for defence, reducing any chance of creating new neural connections while preventing the ability to learn.

The NEA state certainly forces us to find solutions to our problems, to fix what doesn’t work, to focus on one single task, to analyze and use our mental energy. It is not a state that encourages us to develop or access to new ideas, new people and new possibilities.


…Being better equipped to handle stressful situations

We need to find the will and strength to transition to PEA, a Positive Emotional Attractor state to make a real change. This means we have to consider our ideals, our dreams, our hopes for a better future, and the real question of Why. When you’re in a PEA state your breathing slows down, your blood pressure drops, and an overall sense of well-being is set in motion, boosting our immune system in the process. A sense of calm, optimism, and hope helps us seek and discover innovative and creative solutions.


Moving from NEA to PEA

The NEA state remains relevant as long as it can activate an analytical response in the individual when faced with a challenge. Nevertheless, pain is not conducive to learning, acquiring new knowledge and/or adopting new attitudes or behaviours. To seize and develop any new opportunities, the learner must be in a calm, safe state to be open to change and to creating a lasting transformation. When we feel safe, we can fully engage in the process.

As coaches, we therefore need to make sure that the learner, or individual, moves from an NEA state to a PEA state to help them create real change. To do so, you have to target and focus on your self-ideal. Fuelling yourself through dreams, hope and an ideal, future version of oneself motivates and energizes the individual to move beyond fears and makes lasting transformation possible. Goal setting, or focusing on objectives when you offer both feedback and coaching activates the analytical brain, but not the heart. Goal setting in coaching is long gone and has been for a long time! Coaching associated with the trend toward positive psychology and neuroscience tells us that a PEA state promotes real fulfillment and encourages lasting transformation. We now have to make room for the intention, which is more noble, or for the purpose, which is more motivating and less restrictive than an objective. And it is through compassionate coaching that we are able to make a greater impact. We need to be committed to the transformation and growth of the other person. Anything involving gratitude and compassion is a fast track to a PEA state, as Boyatzis often suggests.


Research also shows us that we can induce a PEA state simply through practising mindful breathing, yoga, Tai chi, moderate physical exercise and walking in nature, to name a few.


How can we as managers, human resource executives or coaches maintain a sense of psychological safety in our talent? We can start by letting them see that we are human too, that we too have sometimes made mistakes (from which we’ve learned!), by admitting to our errors, to our weaknesses, and most importantly, to our vulnerability. Also, be curious! Ask your colleagues lots of questions to get to know them, but also ask about their work, their accomplishments and the lessons they’ve learned from their successes and failures!

How about you? How do you contribute to inspiring a sense of psychological safety in your organizations and teams?

For advice and coaching support, please consider using our services and browse our human resources and management programs as well as the introduction to facilitation course!


Read other similar articles:

Nothing is permanent except change

Finding peace (AGAIN) in the heart of the storm

Psychological safety in times of crisis

The appreciative retrospective


To delve a little deeper, see: Richard Boyatzis – Helping People Change

Zélia Lefebvre

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