Embracing change can be one of the hardest things to do. It’s the mantra. It’s in all the self-help books. Organisations want us to do it. Governments (usually) want us to do it. Heck, even our family members want us to do it.
But I get it. It’s hard, right?
The way things are now is comfortable. Maybe not pleasantly comfortable. But definitely familiar.
Better the devil you know, right?
Today I’d like to share with you two key reasons why embracing change is hard. Along with a few things you can do to make it a little bit easier.
Why is embracing change so hard?
Your brain prefers consistency…'Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.' ~ George Bernard ShawClick To Tweet
Your brain prefers consistency – even if the status quo is not ideal, at least it is known. It is predictable. It is ‘safe’.
To be honest, there’s not a lot of logic behind this. At least not logic that survives into the modern world we live in now.
When we were a little more primitive in our evolutionary journey, new things had a propensity to be dangerous. Not always. But often enough.
The new berry that turned out to be fatally poisonous. The new water source that wasn’t safe to drink. The new animal that turned out to have a venomous bite.
So it isn’t surprising that our brains developed a fairly healthy distrust of unfamiliar things… and a degree of comfort with familiar things…
Even when the evidence tells us those familiar things are not serving us well. Abusive relationships that we’d rather tolerate than risk being on our own… Jobs that we despise and make us miserable… Eating food with minimal nutritional content, drinking, smoking, drug-taking…
Sometimes our concerns about the unfamiliar manifest as irrational fears. The number of people afraid of flying is significantly higher than the number of people afraid of travelling in a car. Across the span of your lifetime, you have a 1 in 98 chance of dying in a car accident, compared with a 1 in 7,178 chance for dying in a plane crash (source: “Is Air Travel Safer Than Car Travel?“). This stacks up no matter how you calculate the risk – miles travelled, absolute number of accidents…
So your brain would rather do things it knows it has done before. Even if the outcomes weren’t that great. This is why some of the conventional wisdom about change (e.g. Kotter’s burning platform) don’t always work the way we expect.
Change happens at different speeds for everyone…'Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.' ~ Barack ObamaClick To Tweet
What on earth am I talking about! Time is absolute right?
Well, yes, and no.
Let’s take the example of organisational change – a restructure perhaps.
It’s highly likely that the Finance Adviser and the Marketing Analyst will perceive the pace of change very differently. In marketing (generally) there is a lot more change happening on a daily basis – new products, new campaigns, adjustment in response to market data, adjustment in response to sales data, adjustment in response to competitor activity… In other words, any given day in the marketing department could involve significant ‘job changing’ adjustments.
The finance team, however, tend to operate on a more predictable schedule. Invoices come in, invoices go out, things need to be paid, creditors need to be ‘prodded’. Month-end happens – just after the month ends. Year-end happens – you guessed it – just after the year ends. Sure, some managers will be late filing their reports, and some creditors might have imaginative excuses for why they can’t pay their bills, but the pace is more predictable. It’s cyclical. It’s familiar.
So do you think the Marketing Analyst and the Finance Advisor might perceive the change process differently? Absolutely. And this isn’t even taking into account the personal preferences and risk appetites of the individuals involved.
What was it about these career choices that were attractive in the first place?
You may find that the some people think the same change process is going far too slowly (why don’t they just get on with it) and others feel like it is hasty and rushed.
Same change – different people.
How does this help with embracing change?
Well, understanding why change is hard can enable you to make it a bit easier.
So here are some ways that you can make embracing change a slightly more realistic objective – whether it’s for you or for your team.
Make the unfamiliar familar'If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude.' ~ Maya AngelouClick To Tweet
It might sound strange, but your brain doesn’t really know the difference between something you’ve actually done before, and something you’ve carefully visualised doing, (at least not the part of your brain that worries about familiar and unfamiliar things…).
So armed with this knowledge you can readily become familiar with something you’ve never actually personally experienced.
Start by writing down a narrative account of the ‘ideal’ version of the unfamiliar/unexperienced thing. Then read it over and over, until you know it by heart. Then close your eyes and picture it happening – with as much detail as you can muster.
Please note – this method won’t work for everything – or in every circumstance. If your fear is losing your job, then you can visualise yourself successfully reapplying for this job – or a different one. So that works. But if you literally cannot see how the change will work, it’s very hard to picture it working.
Your brain will get used to the idea, and it won’t seem nearly so scary anymore. Likewise, if it is your team who are going through the change, you can describe the future state in positive (but realistic) terms on a frequent basis. This will help them start to imagine what the change will look like, and it will become more familiar.
Seise a level of control
One of the reasons we think aeroplanes are more dangerous than cars is because we aren’t in control of the plane. At least with the car we’re probably in the driver’s seat – or if we’re on the passenger side, we imagine we could grab the wheel or intervene if something was going wrong.
Hard to do that in an aeroplane.
Embracing change means feeling in control of something.
Generally when change is happening around us, there is something we could get involved in and take some control of. We can offer to help. We can offer to lead a part of the process. We can support colleagues (constructively).
And even when there aren’t any obvious ways for us to get involved directly, we do have control over our own actions. We can control our response to the situation. We can control how we talk about it to others. We can even take the bold step to remove ourselves from the situation completely if we’re deeply uncomfortable.
My only cautionary note here is that sometimes you don’t have all the information (which is contributing to your discomfort) and your interpretation of what’s happening can be completely wrong. I have heard stories about change processes where key individuals were in line for significant promotion or new responsibilities at the end of the process, but management couldn’t yet discuss it openly because of a range of other steps that needed to be taken first.
In the meantime, these highly talented individuals took action, in the form of finding a new job in another firm, much to management’s chagrin.
If it’s your team going through the change, create ways for them to take control of parts of the process – even if it’s just how frequently they want to be updated on progress.
Accept and surrender'You must be the change you wish to see in the world.' ~ Mahatma GandhiClick To Tweet
You know what? It probably won’t kill you.
So why not go with the flow and see what happens. Focus on looking for a silver lining, and you might actually find one.
In my own experience (and I’m not that great at understanding why people fear change – I run into it like a crazy person) the greatest opportunities of my working career and my personal life have come from leaning into change, knowing I can’t know exactly how it will turn out, and trusting that I’ll figure it out as I go.
This requires a bit of self-confidence, a great deal of optimism and an underlying belief that things work the way they work for a reason – even if you can’t immediately see it.
For your team, ask them to come up with three ways the change will make their jobs easier. Then get them to share it with their colleagues. Changing their focus will change how they feel.
Talk to someone about how you feel
If you have a coach or a mentor, great. Talk to them about how you’re feeling, and seek their support for finding a constructive way to move forward.
If you don’t, find someone you trust, and who isn’t involved (to avoid self-interest) and have a chat. Let them know that you’re feeling anxious or worried, and you’d like them to help you find some positive approaches. Otherwise there’s a risk they spend the whole time sympathising with you, which may lead to you feeling worse!
Embrace your worst fears…
This can sound a bit morbid or pessimistic, but in reality, it’s incredibly powerful.
When you really dig deep into the feared outcome, before it happens, you’ve usually already worked out that, even though it will suck, you’ll survive. You’ll figure it out. You’ll find a way through to the other side.
Tim Ferriss has done an excellent TED talk on this.