Why Change Is So Hard - And What Leaders Can Do About It
By Gary Bradt
that right before you drove home from work, someone told you that
all the old traffic laws had changed forever: red no longer meant
stop and green no longer meant go. In fact, all of the signs that
used to guide you were no longer valid. The old laws were gone but
the new laws were yet to be written. How would you feel and what
would you think as you set out for home?
change happens just like that. It’s sudden, it’s quick and it
disrupts our equilibrium. Whether it’s the unforeseen sale of a
company, the sudden loss of a job, or the unexpected loss of a loved
one, the world you once knew is gone, and it’s difficult to know
what to do next. It’s frightening, because one way we survive is by
being able to predict our environment and acting accordingly. When
predictability disappears, so to our sense of safety.
way change can trigger our most basic survival instincts, and even
when physical survival is not an issue, it can feel as if it
is whenever things change. This is why change is so difficult: Our
known existence, whether we liked it or not, is replaced by an
unknown one, and we become fearful and disoriented, not knowing
where to turn next to find the comfort and safety we seek.
respond quickly and boldly to this circumstance by taking steps to
reestablish a sense of balance for themselves, and their followers.
Below are four tips to help you lead yourself and others through
difficult and perhaps sudden or unforeseen change.
Whatever you feel, it’s okay. Change may stir up a host of
emotions, including sadness, fear, and anger. There are no rules on
what anyone should feel, but everyone should feel something. If not,
then emotions may be lurking beneath the surface of one’s awareness,
and make their presence known at the worst possible moment, perhaps
emerging as an unintended sharp word or fit of impatience. Remember
this: Emotions in and of themselves are neither good nor bad; it’s
what we do as a result of what we feel that determines the outcomes
we get. Acknowledging feelings makes them easier to control.
Therefore leaders acknowledge their own feelings when things change,
and validate the feelings of others. You shouldn’t feel that way
is not part of an effective leader’s lexicon.
Mourn first, then move on. In a similar vein, it’s
important to mourn and move on when unwanted change hits, and in
that order. Almost every unwanted change brings with it a sense of
loss and a wistful desire to return to the way things were.
In an attempt to move on, it’s tempting to make the mistake
of encouraging people to embrace the new without giving them time to
let go of the old. Sometimes we have to go slow at first to go fast
later on. Change leaders create environments where people can
process their thoughts and feelings about what they are giving up
and what they will miss, before they have followers focus
exclusively on what they will gain. For example, I have known
business groups to hold mock funerals when an old division or
department is being shut down. Everyone on the team writes his or
her good bys to the past on a large sheet of paper that is then
buried, burned or otherwise disposed of. A bit hokey, perhaps, but
it gets at an important point: Leaders do whatever they can to help
people let go of the old before they ask them to latch on to the
Demand perfect effort, not perfect results. Often, change comes
in bursts, as one change begets another. This can feel overwhelming,
especially to those who weren’t involved in planning the change or
otherwise didn’t see it coming. To them, change can feel
particularly risky or threatening. To help reduce anxiety, leaders
should demand maximum effort in response to the change, but not
perfect results. Not all of your change initiatives will turn out
exactly as planned. Leaders acknowledge this, and encourage
followers to learn and adjust as they go. This recalls the story of
a young man who worked for his father. After making a mistake that
cost the company nearly fifty thousand dollars, the young man was
called into his father’s office, believing he was about to be fired.
“Why would I fire you?” his father said. “I just invested fifty
thousand dollars in your education!”
Break long-term change down into doable chunks. One organization
I encountered had this operational philosophy toward change: “We’re
born on Monday, we die on Friday, and we’re reborn on Monday.” It
worked like this: Every Monday each work group would get together
and decide on the 2-3 big ideas they would concentrate on that week,
whether it was customer service, operations improvements, or
whatever else tied into their longer term strategic change plan. On
Friday they debriefed what they learned during the week from their
focused efforts, and on Monday they started the process all over
again. In this way they took longer-term change and broke it down
into short-term, doable increments. Keep you daily operational focus
on immediate steps, lest followers become immobile in the face of
seemingly unattainable longer-term change goals and objectives.
Final Word: Sudden and overwhelming change can trigger
fundamental survival instincts. Effective leaders recognize this and
move quickly to help followers regain a sense of balance and
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