Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies – Robert Kennedy
Whether we like it or not, a change has occurred – and on a very grand scale, nonetheless. Human beings are already inherently resistant to the concept of change, because even under better circumstances, change still leaves us with the unavoidable question of “what if?” Whether good or bad, the magnitude of unplanned change that has occurred in recent weeks has not made it any easier for us to accept change as a benevolent force. Change, and the apprehension to, is pervasive in all aspects of life and is the root cause of many psychological roadblocks, including our failures in career growth, personal relationships, and especially how to effectively grasp and apply important life lessons. Change obligates us to shift from what we are accustomed to and familiar with and deal with the uncertainties of a possibly new and unfamiliar path. However, we fear the unfamiliar and detest discomfort, so it makes sense why our baser instincts kick in when we are met with the proverbial fork in the road.
Most changes we are experiencing today were neither planned on or prepared for, but rather dropped onto our laps with little warning and we have no choice but to trudge through a forest of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and varying degrees of fear for an undetermined period of time, hoping to one day resume the sense of normalcy we were once accustomed to. Business professionals are attempting to weather the formidable storm with no discernable path of escape, further cementing our disdain for the change we are all facing. Change by definition is the act of making something different, and there is only so much change that can be tolerated by humans before we begin to feel like we are spinning on a hamster wheel, losing our sense of purpose, or worse, having a crisis of identity. This is the dilemma that millions of business owners and employees are now facing.
For many professionals, when things have generally been a particular way for some time, we believe that they must be the result of the best choice, and the longer they have been said way, the better things should be…in theory. This extends beyond the mere argument of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but rather has been clinically demonstrated that we unconsciously believe longevity equals goodness. We prefer a comfort zone of reasonable predictability for one obvious reason – we like to be in control. When we are not in control, we feel powerless and when we are powerless, we are uncomfortable to the point of fearful. However, to progress is to experience a change of some degree; progress is the product of change and the precursor to whatever our individual definitions of success are. “Monotony and complacency” has never been the slogan for growth, nor has it ever been demonstrated to be the secret to prosperity. The silver lining to the circumstances of today is that this is not the first time humanity has experienced such a curve ball thrown at it (and in all honesty, it surely will not be the last). “Times arrow neither stands still nor reverses, it merely marches forward” and it is up to us as business leaders to prove our mettle and lead our organizations through the turmoil that we are all facing, whether we like it or not.
Things do not change; we change – Henry David Thoreau
To get a better understanding of our natural resistance to change and how we can overcome it, we must look at our limbic system – a set of structures in the brain that deal with emotions and memory – for answers. These structures regulate autonomic endocrine function in response to emotional stimuli and track our emotional relationships to thoughts, objects, people and events. The limbic system drives a lot of our behavior, quite often unconsciously, and determines how we feel about the world around us moment to moment. In the words of esteemed neuroscientist Dr. Evian Gordon, “Everything you do in life is based on your brains determination to minimize danger or maximize reward.” Today, millions of us are receiving little to no reward as a result of the catastrophic change. In fact, we are experiencing the threat of a high level of impending danger which we have little control over. Our limbic system is in fight or flight mode more than ever. To successfully navigate and circumvent our obstacles, both present and future, we need to understand how to effectively apply change efforts within our organizations with the hopes of not just advancing the progress of our businesses, but our personal development as well.
No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew – Albert Einstein
Most change, especially planned change, is intended to be beneficial, so why do over 70% of change efforts fail to reach their desired outcome? How can businesses learn to embrace change in our lives rather than rebuff it? Renowned change management expert Rick Maurer elaborates on three levels of change resistance exhibited by those receiving instructions for change – Intellectual, Emotional, Personal.
The first level (Intellectual) espouses an absence of understanding (“I don’t get the purpose of the change or how to change”). This is the result of a lack exposure to information, disagreement over interpretation of the data, or confusion over what it all really means. The second level is an emotional reaction to the change (“I don’t like it”). This stems from fear of losing face, status, control, competence, or expertise as a result of the proposed change. The third (Personal) is a lack of trust or confidence in the leader attempting to implement the change (“I don’t like you”). It is in our best interest to understand what level we as resistors may be in, as this will result in the inevitable outcomes of the change process as well as the process itself to be as effectively executed and mutually beneficial as possible rather than chaotic and parasitic. As leaders, we must attempt to understand what levels different resistors are at and effectively making our case by using clear, understandable language, mitigating any anxiety, increasing excitement, and genuinely rebuilding any neglected or damaged relationships. It should be no surprise that Maurer’s model emphasizes effective means of communication as the rudimentary skill needed to successfully overcome any of the three levels. After all, communication, or the lack of, is the fundamental reason that most change efforts, both personal and professional fail. Different levels of resistance require different methods of communication to ensure the message of change properly resonates with the intended audience. Practicing patience and diplomacy is easier said than done, but certainly rewarding in the long run. Maurer’s model allows business leaders to identify the broad reasons why change efforts seem to be falling on deaf ears and to apply the appropriate methods for each scenario.
Once pain points are identified, business thought leader and management consultant John Kotter offers an eight-step guide towards successfully leading transformation efforts within a business to ensure a greater chance of success:
- Establish a sense of urgency – convince a majority of your team that the status quo is more dangerous than the unknown
- Form a powerful guiding coalition – assemble a group with shared commitment and enough power to lead the change effort
- Create a vision – create a vision to direct the change effort and develop strategies for realizing that vision
- Communicate the vision – use every vehicle possible to communicate the new vision and strategies for achieving it
- Empower others to act on the vision – remove or alter systems or structures undermining the vision and encourage risk-taking and non-traditional ideas, activities, and actions
- Plan for and create short-term wins – recognize and reward team members contributing towards performance improvements
- Consolidate improvements and produce more change – hire, promote, and develop team members who can implement the vision and reinvigorate the change process with new projects and change agents
- Institutionalize new approaches – create leadership development succession plans consistent with the new approach
Transformation is a process, not an event. By understanding the stages of change, we boost our chances of a successful change transformation within a business.
The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making our weaknesses irrelevant – Peter Drucker
Our physical workplaces have changed, our routines have been scattered, and our priorities have shifted drastically in a matter of weeks, but this does not mean that learning how to embrace change is not a valuable skill for business owners to have once the coronavirus dust settles. To withstand the current wave of hardship and victoriously emerge stronger than before obligates leaders to obtain an understanding of how to communicate what is best for the business with their teams. Change is, was, and always will be an omnipotent force to reckon with if we wish to grow and advance. While it may be true that the most accepted means of living, operating, behaving, or practically anything-ing will stand the test of time and sustain as the preferred choice of doing said activities, it does not necessarily mean that they are the best choice or that they are impervious to (necessary) change. We fear the unknown, and change requires us to venture out of our comfort zones, challenge our stability, and stare Unknown right in the face. Change is a modification and no matter how great or small, it is whether we are capable or willing to find stability and comfort in what may be a novel way of pursuing our activities. If we can do that, we can weather any storm that comes our way, even pandemics.