By Gail Gorman and Jerry Seavey

Centuries ago, people didn’t think the world was changing at all. Their grandparents had the same lives that they did, and they expected their children and grandchildren would do the same- and that expectation was largely fulfilled. What is not fully understood is that the pace of change is itself accelerating, and the last 20 years are not a good guide of the next 20 years. We’re doubling the paradigm shift rate, the rate of progress, every decade.[1]

Especially in the emerging global community change is a natural part of life, but what is the nature of change? Why is it that so many people, sane stable people under normal circumstances, seem to crack under the pressure of it? You’ve seen it happen to your employees, your staff, perhaps even to yourself. When things change, people get stressed and stress costs your company more than you think.[2]

Change in our personal and professional environment is widely acknowledged to be the number one cause of adult on-set stress. Euphemistically called “Life Events”, personal life changes (moving, death, birth, jobs) are such stress based motivators that large and successful financial institutions bank their future on selling you relief in the form of a financial plan. Change causes stress and stress drives everything from a species to a company to an individual to make adaptive and evolutionary change.

In the workplace change is no less difficult. Fraught with uncertainty and anxiety workplace change can quicken the pulse of even the most stout at heart. Stanford University Help Center lists organizational change as the cause of anxiety connected with the loss of: a sense of security, a sense of competence, relationships, a sense of direction and control, territory and job. Employees can develop feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. There is usually an active rumor mill, low morale and decreased productivity all leading to stress-related physical impact and burnout.[3]

Yet change is the only real constant in life. So why is change so hard for us? Perhaps a dispassionate look at what happens on the personal level is in order. Although our graphic shows a circle, it is useful to imagine change as a spiral or a dynamic system that winds and arcs from its start to deal with increasing complexity.

In the beginning, we all start out competent at least enough so to do the job, but then things change…

image001Competent: When you’ve mastered a skill, you know it almost at the level of subconscious or “muscle” memory. You can perform your duties without much conscious effort.

Challenged: When you are faced with change, you realize that you don’t even know what you don’t know yet. Some people will respond with excitement and some people will respond with fear. Response to change is not a good predictor of suitability for the new organization.

Crisis: Once you start down the path of change, you begin to discover what you didn’t know when you started. This is usually an ought-oh moment. Stress reaches all time high as you realize that you need to scramble to catch up.

Control: Finally, after a lot of concentration and significant learning, at last you know what you need to know, but you must continue to tightly control it in order to do it right.

When you’ve controlled it well enough for long enough, you’ll move back into your nice comfortable groove. You’ve again become competent, until significant new change occurs.

Change then, by its very nature, challenges us to step outside of our comfort zone and into a world where we have to try harder. In an organization, as each person’s anxiety goes up, emotional intensity of the group goes up and misunderstandings go up in occurrence exponentially. It is difficult to speak clearly and to hear accurately if emotional intensity is raised, or if people feel rushed.[4]

Of course organizations are comprised of people who work together in a system, making it useful to look at all of the disruption that is taking place at the systemic level.

cycles of change 2All change starts with the Status Quo. This part of the cycle is earmarked by predictability. There are only minor variations, day to day.

Generally, organizations move into Status Quo after a period of growth. Everyone settles down and even disruption occurs only within the narrow band fo the expected.

Change begins when forces, either internal or external, drive toward a new goal or when situations around or within them can no longer be sustained. Natural forces resist those drivers and disruption outside of the normal band begins to occur.

At this stage everyone experiences discomfort: those who are pushing harder for change because of perceived opposition, and those who oppose change because of the unexpected disruption.

Turbulence is the result, as pressure mounts both for and against change. Turbulence reaches maximum force levels and stress hits an all time high. It is precisely at this moment, just before disintegration of the old status quo, that everyone in the organization needs the personal resource to embrace change.Unfortunately it is precisely at this moment when those in the throes of change are most likely to be the least resourceful. You’ll recognize this as loud but petty arguments, disrupted meetings, higher than normal complaints, both formal and informal grumbling. Cooperation goes down, territorial behavior goes up as does tattling, sabotage and self-marketing.[5]

There are useful ways to encourage yourself and others of the staff to behave resourcefully and we’ll cover those later but for now just think of positive resources as possessing qualities such as humor, introspection, patience and vision to name a few.

Continuing through the system’s cycle, assuming the forces of change including momentum are sufficient, the organization will move from turbulence to disintegration of the old status quo. There is never one precise moment, but rather a general knowing that, even if you wanted, there is no going back. The only way out now is through. For a brief period, turbulence in fact motion in general comes to a halt, almost as if the organization is holding its collective breath.

Quietly a time of reflection is entered. This is the stage at which most people in the organization will begin to self-select. Either they will elect to be a part of the new way or they will resign themselves to moving on.

Reflection moves into formation, where teams begin to gel. Innovation takes root and after a rehash of plans, construction starts. After sufficient construction, the organization moves into the new status quo.

The graphic clearly reveals that less than half the organizational cycle of change is focused on pro-active behavior. The remainder is force, both for and against, in opposition to each other followed by finality. Taken in conjunction with what is happening at the personal level, it’s pretty easy to see where the sweaty palms and sleepless nights come from.

So what can be done? There are any number of great change management texts and professional guidance organizations. Go to any bookstore or open any business directory. Also, hiring a Personal/Professional Coach is highly recommended. In the meantime here are a few options to think about when you think about planning change in your environment.


Change is Your Ally


A remark attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” We all know the power of inviting your staff into your plans for change. The importance of the product is not the plan itself, but the ongoing process. By inviting others to help the system to change, you gain the opportunity to co-opt those who are important to your organization. By giving them a piece of the future to design, you help them to see change as something of their own crafting.

It’s a time-honored approach, so why not take it to the next level? Encourage your staff to communicate, in turn, with their staff, and so on through to the most junior ranks. Ask your staff to send the message openly. This change is the organization’s ally. Face it and encourage people to shoot for rapid recovery, perhaps viewing their situation not as a change in the job they once had but as if they’d taken another job entirely and it was different from the last one.[6] By marketing the change as positive opportunity to all levels of the organization and by inviting their feedback you set the tone and pace of recovery for those who will recover and realignment for those who will move on. You may also find that an open approach will deter feudalism, loss of focus and information hoarding and even turn down the volume of the rumor mill.

To quote Mary Ferguson, author and futurist, “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place between that we fear… It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.”


Bag of Nickels


I once had a mentor who was a brilliant man, in the business of change management. When I took my first in a very long line of jobs with him, he handed me a sack full of nickels, just about $5.00 worth and said, “Gail, things are going to be very difficult around here. We’re here to make things change and nothing much has changed in this company for nearly 60 years.” I looked at the bag with what must have been considerable confusion on my face. As he stood to go he said, “Every time that you react to fear, anger, panic or doubt with anything less than kindness and fortitude, you spend a nickel. When that bag is empty, you loose your job.” Nervously I laughed and counted out my nickels. I haven’t worked for Paul in nearly a decade, but I still have that sack and I still have several nickels.


Positive Resources


Understanding the power of emotions in the work place sets the best leaders apart from the rest – not just in tangibles such as better business results and retention of talent but also in the all-important intangibles such as higher morale, motivation and commitment.[7]

This process works best if done one-on-one between leaders and their staff. Specifically for those involved in the change process, ask each of them to write a list of personal positive resources they possess. They do not need to share the list, only to spend the time writing it down. Positive resources are such things as patience, humor, empathy, generosity, kindness, open-mindedness, vision, information sharing, courage, self confidence, a sense of security, fairness and the like.

When each person returns with the list, challenge him or her to remember the list when reviewing the day. We all review our day, sometimes assigning blame to others or ourselves. This exercise simply invites us to review with the intention of developing more positive resourcefulness when living through periods of high stress. Basically the exercise proceeds as follows:

Whenever you naturally take the time to review the day’s events, whether it’s on the ride home or perhaps after dinner or before going to sleep, notice the times when you might have acted with less than positive behaviors or perhaps reacted with a less than positive response. Don’t dwell on those times, simply notice them as if you were an objective observer. Then, recall your list of positive resources. Choose from among the resources on your list selecting the one that, if you had more access to it at that moment in time, would have allowed you to respond differently. Actually see yourself going through that situation again, only this time with the resource you needed ready at hand. Be sure to focus for a moment on handling the situation resourcefully and then let the entire review fade away knowing that if that a similar situation arises again you’ll have the resource to deal with it more successfully.


Change Your Language, Change Your Results


An entire book can be written about how your use of language affects your life. In fact dozens of those books exist so we won’t go into it in great detail here. Just remember at a time when organizational pressure is high – defuse. Look for the places in your language where you send a signal of stress, uncertainty or pending disaster and change those words. Try changing, “If we don’t make these changes we’ll be unable to compete in the new market,” to “When we’ve made this change, no competitor will be able to touch us.” It changes uncertainty (if) to certainty (when) and fear (unable to compete) to fortitude (untouchable). Even simple changes such as switching from, “The company’s goal is…” to, and “The outcome we see for our organization is…” sends a signal. It says that you have an outcome in your sights and it is for the whole organization, not just for some company that your people may or may not belong to.

Here we end our thoughts by noticing that even the little things such as changing the words, “made a mistake,” or “lost it,” or “blew my cool,” to “acted less than resourcefully,” takes the emotional charge out of it. So when encouraging someone to “get it together,” try asking him or her to “be more resourceful,” and see what you get for results.

©2003 Gorman & Seavey

About the Authors:

Gail Gorman is an author, entrepreneur and a contributing editor for MindBridge Institute, an International Change Management Organization.

Jerry Seavey is an author, personal/professional coach, international speaker and trainer, founder of MindBridge Institute and successful 30 year veteran of Human Engineering and Change Management. ( +919 771 2227

[1] Quote from Ray Kurzweil, inventor and futurist

[2] Chrysallis, the Costs of Stress, September 2001 Volume 2 number 2


[4] Managing Transitions, William Bridges, Addison-Wesley, 1991

[5] Coping with Difficult People, R. Bramson, Valentine Books, 1981

[6] The Employee Handbook of New Work Habits for a Radically Changing World, Price Pritchett

[7] Primal Leaderships, Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, D. Goleman, R. Boyatzis, A. McKee