Think of the last time you were faced with having to make a change. Given the world we live in today, the latest change affecting you might have happened yesterday or today: an organizational change at your company; a new – important – development in your profession; a change in what your customers want; a new regulation arising from the pandemic.
If you’re like most people, your first reaction to this latest change was probably more negative than positive. Perhaps something like: Arrgh, as if the past two years haven’t been stressful enough …” along with a sinking feeling and a sense of being newly overwhelmed.
Why is the idea of change – especially change imposed upon us – so often unwelcome? Given the past few years of massive change and disruption on so many levels, you’d think we would have gotten used to non-stop personal and professional change by now.
Our Anti-Change Wiring
Blame our experience as a species. For most of human history, change has been dangerous; the safest course of action has generally been to return to the known. If there was a famine – you wanted to get back to eating regularly. If there was an invading army – you wanted to get back to peace and prosperity. You get the idea. Most of the time, returning to a previous set of stable conditions was the way to go.
Over many thousands of years, this has resulted in most people seeing most change as a threat. But today, to be successful, we often have to make changes in how we work, who we work with, and how we deal with customers. So, what’s a human to do? These five things can help you become more change-capable:
“All great changes are preceded by chaos.” – Deepak Chopra
1. Find out More
When an unexpected change comes at us, we often just shut down and stop listening after the word “different.” But there’s some key information about any change that will help you decide how best to respond. First, ask for more clarity about what the change is – what it means for you, practically. Then ask why it’s happening, so you get some sense of possible benefits. Finally, ask the person promoting the change what the post-change future will look like: how it will affect your business, your customers, and your employees, if you have them. Getting this foundational information can make the change start to seem less overwhelming and more understandable.
2. Difficult to Doable
Most often, when we first hear about a change, we assume it’s going to be difficult – that we won’t know how to do it, or that others will make it hard to do. Instead, turn your mind toward how you could make it easier. Is there someone who already knows how to do what you’re being asked to do who could help you? Is there training available? Can you talk to your boss, or others promoting the change, about what it will take to do it?
3. Costly to Rewarding
We also tend to think that a change is going to take away more than it gives us: that learning how to do it will take time we can’t spare or that it will hurt our reputation – that we’ll look bad trying to do something we’re not used to doing. The change will seem less daunting if you can also focus on ways in which it might be rewarding: maybe the new way of doing things will take less time, once you’ve learned it, or will solve a problem that you know customers have been complaining about. If you discover that the long-term rewards outweigh the near-term costs, the change will start to seem more attractive – maybe even necessary.
4. Weird to Normal
One of the worst things about change is that new ways of doing things just feel weird. Anyone who’s ever had to learn to drive a stick shift as an adult, for instance, or spent time living in another culture, knows that feeling of “this just isn’t what I’m used to.” Making a change feel normal is an important way to get past our hesitation, and sometimes the quickest way to do that is to find someone you like and respect who understands and is doing things in the new way. Ask them to share with you what feels OK about it to them and listen carefully to see what resonates for you.
5. Practice Makes Perfect…or at Least OK
And finally, perhaps, the most important way to get comfortable with a new way of doing things or thinking about things is simply to do it. And then do it again. If you think about anything you’ve learned as an adult – from swing dancing, to speaking another language, to using a new social media platform – you probably remember the day when you had practiced enough that you suddenly thought “Oh, this isn’t so hard.” Once you’ve gotten some basic information about the change and started to look for ways it could be easy (or at least doable), rewarding and normal – take a deep breath and just jump into trying it out.
Every indication is that the pace of change in our lives and in the world is going to continue to increase. It’s unlikely that we’re ever going to return to a time when everything stays status quo. Having the ability to accept and respond well to necessary change is going to become more important with every passing day. Therefore, I invite you to rewire yourself in this way: to learn to think and feel differently about change; to become change-capable. It’s your best path to a successful, satisfying personal and professional life in this era of non-stop change.
Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a coaching, consulting, and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. For over three decades, she’s served as a consultant and advisor to top executives at today’s leading organizations, including Amazon, Spotify, Charter/Spectrum, and the Yale School of Public Health. She’s the author of four bestselling books, including Growing Great Employees and Be Bad First; is a popular leadership blogger at Forbes.com; and is the host of The Proteus Leader Show, a business and leadership podcast globally ranked in the top 10%. Her newest book is Change from the Inside Out: Making You, Your Team, and Your Organization Change-Capable (Berrett-Koehler Publishers; October 26, 2021). Learn more at erikaandersen.com, or follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.