Some Thoughts on Change

We’ve all heard some variation of the following story: You're recovering from triple bypass surgery. You're feeling pretty lousy, and your doctor comes into the room and says: “We need to talk about some changes you're going to have to make in your lifestyle to prevent this from happening again.”

Would you change? Apparently, if you’re like the majority of patients, you probably won't. Research by Dr. Edward Miller, former dean of the medical school and past CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University, found that 9 out of 10 bypass surgery patients don’t make the necessary lifestyle changes to reduce the chances of another incident.

If so few people change when faced with a major health crisis, imagine how difficult it is to get people to change for less important things. And if it’s so hard to get one person to change, imagine how hard it is to change an entire organization, which is made up of people with different agendas, different mindsets, different ideas, different motivations — and the list goes on. If you’ve ever been responsible for leading change in an organization, you know firsthand how difficult this is.

Framing Change

To understand how to facilitate change, you first have to understand how people react to change. Change, no matter how important or inevitable, is frequently viewed as negative. Because it’s uncomfortable to change the status quo, change can also be strongly resisted.

Positive, creative change requires a mindset for change. We cannot ignore organizational culture when we set out to make organizational changes. At its core, an organization is in the people business. Ignoring this fact is done at our peril.

A mindset is the way we see things, the way we think about the world. The brain is designed to lock into these patterns and systems, so that even if we have a desire to change, we often don’t. As a result, giving someone a laundry list of facts about why he or she should change doesn’t magically make the change happen. If the change you’re proposing doesn’t fit the person’s current mindset, it gets rejected instantly.

An organization can get locked into its mindsets, to the point that they become self-reinforcing. You may have experienced this. This is the place where no one questions the prevailing thinking and any variant view is discounted or ignored.

How to Change Your Approach to Change

Change means different things to different people. When we talk about change, people hear different things or messages. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say something along these lines: “What I know today about my job, my organization, and my environment is being replaced. Even though I don’t like the current situation, the unknown is more unsettling.”

It’s important for you to recognize that what you’re really dealing with when managing change is managing the fear of change. This fear can manifest itself in a variety ways, depending on the person’s mindset and past experiences with change. Change is an emotional issue, not just a process challenge.

J. L. Buller categorizes the psychology of change as follows:

  • Change equals loss (i.e., loss of the familiar, of status and recognition, of competence, etc.).
  • Change equals improvement (i.e., what we have now will be enhanced by the change: improved efficiency, gain in status, etc.).
  • Change equals journey (i.e., change is constant and inevitable). People in this mindset wait to see what the process will be like. While they don’t initiate the change, they do take their cues from the early adopters. If it’s a journey of progress, they will support it; if it’s an enforced march, they will oppose it.

To get people on board with change, you have to be able to answer the questions and concerns that matter most to them. You need to look your staff in the eyes and be able to answer what this change will mean for them. Sometimes that is not an easy thing to do, but it is a critical piece of any transformation.

Both new managers and experienced leaders need to understand that change takes place in phases that usually require considerable time to achieve. Successful change begins with a defined vision that helps clarify in what direction the organization (or project) is moving. Crafting that vision takes time and thought. Without a clear and sensible vision, any transformation effort could dissolve into a list of confusing and incompatible tasks that can take the organization in the wrong direction, make little progress, and leave staff demoralized and often cynical. John P. Kotter writes, “If you can’t communicate the vision to someone in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are not yet done with this phase of the transformation process.”

As a leader, you have to communicate the vision (often and many times) and keep motivating people. Your role is key to bringing along the staff. Here are some tips:

  • Help people see that the right connections require communication. Make a constant effort to show staff how the new approaches and processes are helping, improving, and fulfilling the vision. By doing so, you can provide both the context and the detail to keep people from “filling in the blanks” and making assumptions about what the change “means.” Consider making this change vision an agenda item at every staff meeting and at each one-on-one meeting and include it in performance evaluations so that all staff can articulate how their work contributes to the organization’s transformation.
  • Empower others to act on the vision. The more staff are involved, the better will be the outcome overall. Think of meaningful ways to do this.
  • Be consistent in your own actions to support the vision and do not just give lip service to the change effort. Words and deeds matter for leaders.
  • Work with the change resistors even though their reasons for resisting can be complex. Taking time and being fair to everyone (adopters and resistors) in the organization is key to making change. Otherwise, cynicism grows, credibility collapses, and there is either no change or no credible change.
  • Plan for, create, and celebrate short-term wins. Staff need to see the evidence that the journey is producing expected results. Without short-term wins and acknowledgments, staff can give up or join the resistors. You don’t want that. Short-term wins also help to keep the focus on the vision and provide the opportunity to adjust or clarify the vision as required.

If you approach change leadership with a clearer notion of how the psychology of change fits into the equation, you will greatly increase the likelihood that your results will be significant and sustainable into the future. It’s an important lesson for all leaders to learn.

How to Get Better at Dealing with Change

Focus on what’s really important in life rather than your fears.  Stopping to consider your values — family, friends, sports, creative outlets and expressions, gourmet cooking, being in nature — can be a touchstone and buffer during uncertain times. Doing so is also a good reality check to keep things in balance.

Accept the fact that change is a constant in our lives. Those who are able to adapt choose to see change (whether wanted or not) as part of life rather than allowing themselves to feel victimized. Research has shown that those who struggled most with changewere consumed by thoughts of ‘the good old days.’” They spent their energy trying to figure out why their good situation had suddenly gone bad. They tried to return to or remain in a time and a place that no longer existed. This is definitely a good reminder to all of us not to hold on so tightly to the past.

If all else fails, try to find humor in the situation. Finding a reason to laugh in a stressful time can be a really good way to create the levity needed to see the problem in a different way. I’ve worked in environments that seemed to be a constant high-wire act, but my staff and I found reasons to laugh. Laughter never failed to release the tension, and it renewed our commitment to carry on. It also brought us closer together and helped us do better work as a team.

Conclusion

Successful leaders recognize and understand the opportunities and challenges that come with change. Whether it’s a significant enterprise-wide shift or an adjustment to a process, change can be unsettling to staff and must be thoroughly planned for with clear communication of the rationale and the anticipated benefits. Failure to do so, as we well know, results in resistance and struggle or in change that isn’t sustainable.

This all may sound rather simplistic. In reality, even successful change efforts are messy and full of unexpected surprises. Beginning with a clear and simple vision is necessary to guide people through change. Communicating clearly and frequently helps bring people along. Recognizing that change takes time while celebrating short-term wins helps to reduce setbacks. And fewer setbacks can spell the difference between successful change and failure. Now, about that bypass surgery and your lifestyle changes…


Joan F. Cheverie is Director of Professional Development for EDUCAUSE.

© 2016 Joan F. Cheverie. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.