Twelve months ago, I found myself in the throes of the largest, most disruptive, and personally difficult season of organizational change I’ve ever experienced. To call it an emotional roller coaster is an understatement. I felt hurt. I disagreed with much of it. And, I could whine on and on about it for a long time.
The thing is, for my entire adult life I have been the person driving change. I was the one with the grand ideas. I shaped the process and the pacing and more.
Now, with the roles reversed, I was forced to deal with all the emotions and frustrations I had probably inflicted on others. The people at the helm of things are my friends. But, the process was brutal.
So, let’s talk about it. There are a zillion ways to get in trouble trying to lead change. Change is hard. No matter how you cut it, you cannot avoid change. You cannot lead well without causing it. And, you cannot lead change without causing disruption. Leadership is change.
This past year has taken me back to school on the process of change. Especially on change from the perspective of those being impacted by it. It is just hard and I'd like to talk about that in this post.
Three Reasons Change is So Hard
This short list is more like a highlight reel than anything exhaustive. It represents the top three obstacles I see that make leading or accepting change so stinking hard. I see these dynamics at work in every change-laced initiative I observe.
1.) All change creates loss!
No matter how altruistic or potentially fruitful your intentions, the process of change means leaving behind something that’s familiar or meaningful in order to pursue something new.
The process of letting go is the pathway of loss. And, loss is an emotional journey of grief.
Stop. Think about it. That means the fundamental challenge of change is an emotional one, not a logical or practical one. Grief is a non-linear, unmanageable, emotional process. You walk slowly through it, you don’t control it.
2.) The Pain is Immediate, The Payoff is long term!
In any process of change people pay the price of giving up the familiar.
To make a change, you experience the pain of loss and grief right now while the desired benefit of a new day is off in the future.
People affected by change are forced to sacrifice what’s familiar and meaningful by faith. They can only trust that the promise of the new thing will eventually pay off, while they cope with the loss of the old thing right now. Everything about that transaction is emotional.
3.) Change Unleashes Destabilizing Dynamics!
You know the phrase, “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.”
Even if circumstances needing to change are far from ideal, folks have learned to live with them. There are rhythms of life and relationships built on or around the present way of things.
When you introduce change all the dynamics of status quo are thrown into chaos. People start to ask, how do I fit in this new reality, what authority or responsibility do I have anymore? Is my contribution still needed or valued?
William Bridges in his brilliant work, Transitions, calls this season of ambiguity, “the Neutral Zone.” It is a long-lasting gap of time between the announcement of change and the establishment of a new normal. But, it is a destabilizing season when the old ways are in flux but the new ways aren’t settled yet.
One more thing. This season of destabilizing ambiguity lasts a long time. You can’t schedule a finish date and, even if you could, that date would probably be two or three times further into the future then you think you’ll need. It takes time. Along the way, as people grieve, there will be emotionally driven conflict. During this time, “don’t judge people based upon their worst day.” (To quote Ted Lasso.)
De-escalating Reactivity to Change
So what can you do about it?
I can’t cover much about the scope of what it takes to lead change in this short article. I can, however, suggest a handful of micro steps that you can follow to lower the reactivity in your organization. (You can find a whole category of previous posts under the subject of change that I’ve written in the past.)
Consider this a quick primer for reducing the emotionally charged resistance to change among your people.
Talk honestly about the loss. Lead by example and normalize the emotional roller coaster triggered in people by the change.
Give people permission to grieve. And, where possible provide ways to support them in their grief. Don’t over-react to their emotions, let them grieve.
Resist the temptation to oversell the promise of a future payoff. If you are the leader, you are 6-9 months ahead of the emotional reality of your people. When you oversell the promise, you come across as tone deaf to their feelings, their reality, their fears.
Give it time! Talk realistically about the time table and how long it will take before a new normal is achieved and feels, well, “normal.”
Watch for and celebrate short-term wins.
Little milestones. Steps of progress your people are experiencing.
The courageous actions and decisions of those who are trying to live into the new way forward.
Tell the stories of people who acted consistently with the preferred future. Make them the heroes, worth emulating.
Tell stories from your organizations history that mirror what you are experiencing and working on right now.
However you relate to the challenges of change these days, give yourself permission to admit that even though change is hard, hard is normal. Instead of fighting the difficulty of it, put your energy into helping those around you de-escalate the emotional temperature of the situation. It just might give you room to find a fresh perspective.
If you haven't done much thinking about change recently, go to my Blog archives. You'll find a number of articles to jumpstart your thinking.