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Championing and Leading Change

Adapted from Tero's Leadership Academy participant manual

Change is an obvious and undeniable fact of life. Change simply means moving forward and not standing still. The most successful individuals and organizations are those that don't run from change, but turn it to their advantage.

Changing, of course, is a matter of definition. It could mean opening your mind to a new concept or causing you to look at the commonplace from a different perspective or with new insight. It doesn't have to be revolutionary to be significant. Your goal is to help yourself and others, in some way, modify your perceptions, thinking and behaviors.

One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is the courage to meet change as a friend rather than as a feared enemy. If you try to ignore change, you'll likely get knocked off balance. Getting angry, running away or wishful thinking is a waste of time. This is the age where managing change is everyone's responsibility. Think of it as your personal challenge.

There are a lot of reasons changes fail. Each failed change has its own special blend of things gone wrong. The one common element to most failed change efforts is that people entered it without adequately understanding the process of change. For example, how long should change take? How does it affect people?

There are several misconceptions about change; perhaps that's why so many change efforts fail. Some of the primary misconceptions are listed below:

Misconception #1: People Hate Change

This isn't true. Not everyone hates change. Some people actively seek out changes when they feel things have gotten routine. Most of us will happily engage in a change process when it's our idea. In fact, to state simply that "people hate change" is not only to assume that all people are alike, its nigh unto suggesting that they are still infants. Simply growing up requires many changes that most of us have gotten through with reasonable success.

The problem is not that people hate change. Marketing expert Geoffrey Moore described the ways in which populations of people tend to respond to discontinuous changes. His research indicates that the average population breaks down into a normal bell curve: people within the first two standard deviations of the norm don't only appreciate changes, they seek them out; they create them.

The rest of the population tends to respond to change with a little more reserve. They will embrace the discontinuous change after they have seen other people try it first and after they have become suitably convinced that the solutions they have available to them at the time are no longer good enough. Moore called the two distinct populations of people the "Visionaries" and the "Pragmatists" and noted that although they may reside next to each other on the bell curve, they operate out of very different values and as a result, tend to be easily frustrated and skeptical of one another.

Misconception #2: Change Starts with Beginning Something New

It's tempting to think of change as the beginning of something new. Indeed, given the energy it takes to make a change, it's imperative to be excited about and inspired by the new thing - whatever it is. In reality, however, or at least in our emotional realities (which tends to take precedence over "objective reality"); change begins with an ending. Before we can move into the new, we must first leave the old.

William Bridges wrote about this intuitively logical notion in his book Managing Transitions. As Bridges describes it, transition is the emotional process we go through to get from something old to something new. Before you arrive at the new location, you must leave home, travel through what Bridges calls the "Neutral Zone" which is neither home nor the intended destination.

The process of breaking away from the ending, getting used to the idea of what you've lost as well as that with which you're not yet comfortable and slowly warming up to the idea of the new situation takes time, patience and understanding.

During change, people need someone to paint them the picture of what things will look like when they arrive. They need a leader to go first into the fog of the unknown and encourage everyone else that they too can make the journey. During change people need someone who isn't afraid of asking for help and/or helping others implement new ideas.

There are several predictable things you can expect to occur when you ask people to enter the neutral zone. They are likely to lose their focus (particularly if communication is unclear - which might mean that you haven't said in the way they needed to hear it or not often enough). Different people lose focus for different reasons and in different ways. Productivity is likely to drop as people struggle to let go of old ways of doing things and new tasks or processes.

Third and most predictably, you can expect people to overreact and even entrench. They will dig their heels in on issues (which at their root are generally symbolic of other issues and/or emotional in nature).

A lot of people stop as soon as they realize there might be a risk. Leaders continue on even when there is a risk. They know that they may fail if they try but they are guaranteed to fail if they don't try.

Misconception #3: Good Leaders Separate Facts from Emotions

You've probably heard the saying; "Leave your emotions at the door." The saying implies an obvious hierarchy of fact over emotion and further implies that the workplace is no place for emotions. Although it's difficult to trace the exact roots of the saying, it's certainly possible that it arose during the Post-Enlightenment period of Taylorism - a time when theorist Frederick Taylor viewed employees as machines that could be studied for time and motion efficiency and tweaked or tuned to maximize output. The view at the time in history was that the scientific method was absolute and would eventually perfect a process if applied consistently.

Since that time, management and leadership theory has evolved to incorporate the humanity of humans, yet some residual strains of the theory continue to prevail. "Leaving ones emotions at the door" is one such strain. The truth is that the more we know about the science of the human brain, the more we've learned that it's not only impossible to separate a human from his or her emotions, it's not even desirable. In fact, eliminating the capacity for emotion "...destroys the capacities for creative play, imagination, key decision making, and the nuances of emotion that drive the arts, humor, imagination, love, music and altruism." Research has also shown that entire sections of the "higher order" portions of the brain can be removed and the performance on standardized tests of intelligence usually drops very little. On the practical side, the idea of asking people to leave their emotions behind is a recipe for a bunch of unmotivated, uninspired drones and who wants that? As brain researcher Eric Jensen said, "...Our logical side says, 'Set a goal.' But only our emotions get us passionate enough even to care enough to act on that goal."

In the mid-sixties, researchers Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe concluded that all change - good and bad - takes an emotional toll due to the transition it requires. They found that even when the change is a good thing (like the birth of a child or a promotion), letting go of old expectations, habits and patterns and moving through the uncertainty of transition can be frightening, confusing, and ultimately correlated to higher risk of illness.

Tips for Handling the Emotional Impact of Change

The important thing to remember is that change does exact a significant emotional toll which cannot be underestimated or ignored. The type of emotions can run the gamut from anger to sadness to confusion to denial and everything in between. As you build your skills for handling change or as you help others through change, it will be incumbent on you to do the following:

1. Give yourself and others grace for feeling overwhelmed. Validate the emotional process of change. Speak openly of the emotional element of change and reassure people that their emotions are normal. Look for ways to make people comfortable talking about their feelings. You may have to model this by talking about your own emotional reactions to the transitions. It will speak volumes when they see that you too struggle with the feelings of sadness and loss.

Pay attention to the ways individuals deal with their emotions. Some people will want to talk about them over and over and over. For those types of people, talking about their feelings helps make sense of them - as though getting them "out there in the open" provides for a type of verbal organization process. On the other hand, other people will need time to retreat into their own reverie of solitude to think things through and process their feelings internally. Just as you can't expect everyone to hate or love change, you can't expect everyone to respond to the emotional impact of change in the same way. Expect variety and provide opportunities for people to process their emotions in a variety of ways.

2. Recognize (and communicate to others) that energy and morale levels will be lower during the change process as people's emotions get redirected toward assimilating the change. Energy and morale will return if you manage the process effectively, but you (and others) will have to be patient.

3. It is not uncommon for old habits to return during the in-between feeling of the Neutral Zone of transition. Do not be surprised if you find (yourself and/or others) struggling with vices or habits you thought had been mastered.

This might mean taking time to take care of yourself (and others) before you and/or they think it's necessary. Often, competent professionals report that they feel "fine" (and therefore not in need of pampering, decompression or relaxation) until they reach maximum stress levels and precipitate a crisis.

12 Tips for Helping People Successfully Navigate Change

1. Brainstorm creative, symbolic ways to prepare people for the upcoming change challenge. If, for example, there is going to be a change in the team structure, can you revise the physical structure of the office to be symbolic of the upcoming change?

2. Remove barriers to change like fear. It almost doesn't matter how compelling your message is if people are afraid to engage it. Spend some time thinking through the possible sources of fear and do what you can to remove or reduce those barriers.

3. Create a safe change environment by assuring people that they will not be embarrassed or punished for their learning-curve mistakes. Also make an effort to make the change as collaborative as possible. People will be less likely to feel awkward about their attempts at learning if everyone is going through it at the same time.

4. Marketing research has found that it takes approximately seven times before people even tune in to an irrelevant message. This isn't a surprise when you consider the number of messages bombarding us all day every day. In order to avoid being overwhelmed, the brain just deletes the incoming message before it even reaches awareness. Your challenge will be to (a) make the message hit a relevant chord (answer the question: why should I care?) and (b) be consistent and repetitive enough in your messaging strategy that it will eventually sink in. In what ways can you communicate the new expectations so people will listen?

5. Communicate the problem underlying the need for change often and in a variety of ways. Remember that brains instinctively respond to novelty and emotionally relevant messages. An example of novelty is doing something people weren't expecting. If you find, for example, that people don't talk during brainstorming meetings, but they do talk in the breakroom; hold the next meeting in the breakroom. An example of an emotionally relevant message is a message that taps into something a person cares about or with which they feel a connection. For example, when you bought your first car, did you find yourself tuning in to car dealership advertising you'd previously ignored or notice that people seemed (all of a sudden) to be driving the car you liked best? The truth is that those advertisements and other people driving "your" car were there all along; your brain just tuned them out because it wasn't relevant at the time.

6. Be prepared for a little resistance to the notion that it's time to change and learn new skills. People not uncommonly react to the idea of learning new skills as a statement of personal deficiency. Be as sensitive to this as you can and reassure people that you expect the process to include time, practice and mistakes.

7. Give others responsibility for marshalling the change by assigning them to be "experts" of a given topic. Once you've modeled how effective the process can be and set some clear expectations and parameters, you can make each expert responsible for teaching the others his/her areas of expertise.

8. Make an effort to know others as people as well as employees. Can you schedule a bi-weekly brown bag lunch? Or one-on-one breakfasts where you simply get to know one another?

9. Others will need to know where you stand in order to be assured that you stand for what you believe. Talk often about your personal values and engage in regular discussions about the team's values. Look for examples of the values in motion and make a point to demonstrate and celebrate these whenever possible.

10. Practice, practice, practice! The brain needs lots of practice in order to form new connections. Without the practice, it will go back to what is easier and you'll find that others are justifying their old behaviors and idealizing the past (which is normal in small doses but can be a signal of the need for more practice).

11. Encourage others to evaluate their own change process. Schedule time to talk about what's gone well so far and what isn't going so well. This will provide you with the double-whammy of checking in with their emotional reactions to the change and getting them involved in the process.

12. Even though it might seem demoralizing to arrive at the peak of performance and immediately begin looking for new ways to change and improve, it will only help your team in the future to begin to assimilate the idea that change is ongoing. Talk often about the importance of continuous improvement and set aside regular portions of staff meetings to solicit and talk about ideas for improving your processes and service.

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