Change is an optical illusion. Each of us looks at it and sees it through a different lens. For one person, moving the office coffee pot is a major change; for another it is only a minor disruption, adapted to before the end of the day. For one person, starting a new job is an exciting–perhaps even appealing–challenge. For another, it is life’s worst nightmare.
Why is it that all change is different? And if that is the case, how can it be that all change is the same?
As I wrote in an earlier blog, I use Daryl Conner’s definition of change as “a disruption in expectations.” Let’s apply this to the example of starting a new job. Personally, I have held at least 18 different positions doing at least a dozen different types of work in 8 different industries. Clearly, for me, starting a new job is exciting. It gives me the opportunity to take all that I have learned and apply it in a new context; to face new challenges; to learn new things; to develop new skills; and to meet new people. And, as I look at my decision to leave jobs, it has been when I have accomplished what I set out to do, when I have moved from addressing the challenges for which I was hired to maintaining the status quo.
At the other end of the continuum is a man I met a few years ago. “Bill” went to work for an employer directly out of college. Decades later he retired from the same employer, in the same department as he started. Within two years, unable to adapt to retirement, he became a consultant. You guessed it; he consults to his former employer.
Clearly, for Bill and me, the act of starting a new job has very different meaning; it is a very different change.
If that is the case, how can all changes be the same?
What those of us who have immersed ourselves in the field of change have learned is this. While the nature of the disruptions to expectations may be countless, the patterns of human response are consistent and they are predictable. It doesn’t matter whether the change is inconsequential or transformational. It doesn’t matter whether the change is perceived as positive or as negative. It doesn’t matter whether the change is at the deeply personal level, is a change at work, or is societal in nature. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Tampa, or Topeka, or Tokyo. All of these factors may affect the nature of the change, and even the outward reaction to it. What they do not affect is the predictability of the response patterns.
This deep understanding of change provides strong guidance on how to successfully navigate any change. Let me just highlight a few.
- Understand how difficult the change journey will be as seen through the eyes of those who have to travel it. is it a major or minor disruption? Do they perceive it is a positive or negative change? Does it require changes in behavior, or does it go deeper, requiring different ways of thinking as well? Understanding the difficulty will allow you to appropriately calibrate the response.
- Prepare for change. Learn the patterns. Know, for example, that even if the change is seen as positive, if it is a major change, the time will come when strong resistance will surface. (Just think of the journey from dating, to commitment, to marriage, to building and sustaining a long-term relationship.) If you understand that then you will recognize that your doubts, your questioning, those very specific problems you encounter are not signs of something being wrong, but are a part of the inevitable cycle of change. With that understanding, you are able to respond differently.
- Knowing the patterns allows you to also prepare for–and thus execute–any specific change differently. Given that change is driven by a loss of control, for example, how, when, and to what degree are you able to return a sense of control for those who are being disrupted?
Underlying each of my Change Mentor posts is the application of this understanding. It guides how I approach each aspect of each disruptive change in my life. It doesn’t turn “change” into “unchange;” it is still disruptive. But knowing what to expect does lessen the level of disruption and provides clear guidance on shaping the path forward. It helps me never feel like a victim of change, even when it comes from the outside and I see it as negative.
Change is inevitable. Every change is different. Every change is the same.
Join the conversation… Share one of your biggest “Aha’s” or lessons learned about change. Do you think that there are underlying patterns in our response to change, regardless of the nature of the change? Add your comments below.