First, let’s clear up some mis-perceptions. There are very few if any changes that are inherently positive. Whether or not a change is positive is–in fact–in the eye of the beholder.
You may see the move to Office 365 as positive; it helps you access your files from multiple devices at any time and in any place. At the same time, I may see it as negative; now I need to subscribe to Office, instead of just paying a one-time licensing fee. If you won a multi-million dollar lottery, you may see it as negative because of all the major disruptions it will cause in your life and your relationships. If I won, I might perceive it as positive because of all the new possibilities it might offer for the work that I want to do in the world.
Today’s blog is not about positive change; it is about positively perceived change.
Next, let me credit the source of the graphic above, as well as my understanding of what I am presenting here. I was first introduced to this concept when I trained with Conner Partners back in the late 1980’s; what I learned then remains a solid set of principles to apply in the 2010’s.
If the change is big, and you perceive it as positive, beware! Every day, whether at work or in our personal lives, tens of thousands of us–perhaps millions–start on changes of this nature. And, every day, tens of thousands of us–perhaps millions–check out of the very changes we enthusiastically embraced days, weeks, months, or even years ago. So what goes wrong?
Perhaps, in specific cases, one could identify “what went wrong.” But, most of the time, the problem is not that anything specific went wrong other than that those going through the change did not understand the pattern underlying it.
So, let me let you in on that pattern.
When we begin a really big change in our life that we perceive as positive, we are beginning it in a state of “uninformed optimism.” In marriage, and often in a new job, this is referred to as “the honeymoon.” We see everything in a positive light.
It’s a honeymoon because we don’t know what we don’t know.
Uninformed optimism is general. “This is great! I have a new job. I am earning significantly more money. I have a great title. I like the people that I report to, and the ones that report to me. I am a lot closer to the office than I was in my old job.”
BUT… Uninformed optimism is followed by informed pessimism! In big changes–whether they be personal, organizational, or even societal–this is the inevitable reality. We are optimistic because we are going into the change with a significant level of naivete.
As reality hits home, pessimism increases, and it gets pretty specific. “I have a new job…and instead of working 40 hours a week I am working ten hours a day, seven days a week.” “I may be earning significantly more money, but I am paying an incredible price for doing so.” “What’s in a title?” “I liked the people that I report to…until I discovered that they don’t want to hear anything that I have to say.” “The people that report to me smile, and shake their heads yes, and then go and do whatever they want anyway.” “I am closer to the office in distance…but the traffic in this direction makes my commute twice as long.”
What happens as pessimism increases? Enthusiasm wanes. Resistance increases. Doubts arise. The very change that you were so excitedly driving forward (or had eagerly jumped on board to support) becomes questionable. Do you really want to do this? Are you really able to succeed at it? Is it worth the cost?
The most important thing to keep in mind at this point in the cycle is that informed pessimism is not a signal that something is wrong. Rather, it is an inevitable part of the cycle. When you find yourself here you know that in actuality, you are making forward progress!
When people reach this point, checking out is not uncommon; they only real question is whether they will check out publicly or privately. Examples of checking out publicly include such things as filing for divorce, or submitting your resignation. Checking out privately might be entering marriage counseling while carrying on an affair, or closing the office door and spending hours on end surfing the web.
If we haven’t checked out, as circumstances become clearer, pessimism tends to begin to decline. We enter a period of hopeful realism. There are fewer surprises. We can see the obstacles to successfully achieving the desired outcomes of the change, and can see our way around, over, through them. We know that there is still a lot of hard work ahead of us, but are also increasingly confident that the hard work will pay off.
Following Hopeful Realism comes Informed Optimism. At this point we are experiencing real, measurable successes. We still need to work to sustain them. Sometimes–especially if stressed or tired–we might find ourselves slipping back into old ways of thinking or old habits. But when we do, we see it (or others point it out to us), and we bring ourselves back into alignment with the desired end results.
Completion is achieved when you are living in what was once your desired future… It is no longer a dream, or a hope. It is the way things are.
What is your experience with carrying out changes that you perceived as positive? How have you been lulled by the honeymoon of uninformed optimism, or put off-track by the inevitable arrival of informed pessimism? Comment. Share your story.