You lead change by embracing it

When you understand what your troops are enduring, you have the potential to be a far better manager, says Jeff Davidson


With all the changes in the world, industry, and market, there is simply no more standing still. At one time or another, all organisations share some common concerns and challenges, such as rebuilding trust, instilling a sense of ownership, shifting their strategic focus, or adapting to new management. The various players in a transition, including sponsors, change-agents, advocates, well-wishers, targets, and bystanders, as well their interacts with one another as a change ensues, make for the difference between a winning campaign and something less desirable.

On your path to becoming an effective change manager, recognise that the natural human response to change is resistance. People become attached to familiar ways of doing things, even ways they initially regarded as cumbersome, costly, or ineffective.

Individuals resist change; teams and groups resist change; whole organisations resist change. Going further, entire societies, continents, world religions, even the broad swath of humanity reflexively resists change. Remember, change as used throughout this article means significant, challenging and disruptive change.

Fear of the unknown

The resistance people exhibit when they confront change is derived in part from fear of the unknown. My sister worked for years in a battered women’s shelter. Time after time, she would see victims who would share their tales of misery, being beaten and abused by an out-of-control spouse. These partners then relented hours or days later professing sorrow for their actions. Then, the cycle would continue until one day the battered woman showed up at the shelter.

My sister wondered why such women didn’t leave these relationships. After endless rounds of battering, hearing apologies, and then being battered again, surely these victims knew the situation was not going to change. Yet, most of them had difficulties doing what observers thought to be an obviously needed change—leaving the relationship.

A minor percentage of battered spouses were afraid that the abusive partner would track them down. For the rest, the fear of the unknown was greater than the fear of the next beating or potential repercussions of leaving the relationship.

Hardships of making a better life

Just as these victims were afraid of starting over in a new community, finding new homes, seeking new work, and  living on their own, the same situation occurs in companies.

John Kenneth Galbraith, Ph.D., a noted economist from Harvard University in Massachusetts, wrote The Nature of Mass Poverty. While researching his book, he visited four continents to determine why some civilisations remain poor for centuries.

Galbraith found that poor societies accommodate their poverty. As hard as it is to live in poor conditions, unfortunately people find it more difficult to accept the hardship—the challenge—involved in making a better living.  Hence, they accommodate their poverty, and it lingers from year to year, decade to decade, and even century to century.

Resistance despite awareness

You most likely don’t face anything like those situations mentioned above, yet the demons keeping you or your team from embracing change may be just as onerous.

Even when an individual knows and understands that a change will be for the better, he or she is still likely to resist for reasons such as these:

  • Embracing the change will take time and effort that the participants may not be willing to invest in
  • Taking on something new largely means giving up something else, and that something else is familiar, comfortable, and predictable
  • Annoyance or fear of disruption may prohibit people from taking the first step even when it is widely acknowledged that the net result will be to their extreme benefit
  • If the change is imposed externally [as opposed to being internally derived] resistance may endure as a result of ego-related issues.

A tale of resistance

Years ago, I worked for a management consulting firm as a project manager. At the conclusion of each consulting engagement, we had to write a report for the client. This was the most cumbersome, labour-intensive aspect of the job. This was the time before computers, so reports had to be handwritten. I had been in consulting for five years and had written my share of reports. I was looking for easier ways to do my work faster. One of the staff consultants had a pocket dictator he used occasionally to dictate letters and I asked him if I could momentarily borrow it, to which he agreed. I became proficient within about two minutes and I asked him if I could borrow it for the day if he wasn’t going to be using it and he said, “Go ahead.”

Armed and potent

Our office was equipped with transcription equipment but hardly anyone knew about it. I loathed writing longhand; my handwriting wasn’t very good, and it took me forever. So I decided to dictate my very next report. When I started using the dictation equipment, miraculous things happened. Soon, I was able to do my job in 30 per cent of the time that it used to take and my 40-hour work week now only required 12 hours.

Something seemed askew. Here was a device that worked so well and so easily and no one knew about it. I told my co-workers of this miraculous equipment and suggested that everybody adopt it. I sang the virtues of dictation equipment to my boss as well. And will you guess how many people started using it? Not a single one.

Let resistant dogs lie

Everyone was attached to writing reports long hand and then submitting them for word processing. So, I became silent and decided that I would refrain from functioning as an advocate of dictation equipment within my office. If others didn’t want to accept a new way of doing things that could vastly improve their productivity and their lives, so be it.  I wouldn’t be stopped from excelling.

For the next three years, I used dictation equipment extensively. I dictated every single thing that I needed to write and saved it on the computer. Then one of our administrative staff transcribed the mini-cassettes.

With a weekly average of 28 hours freed, I used the time to read, research, or help others in the office. I got large raises and promotions several times during this three-year period, and, within three years, I was the third-ranking professional in the company.

It is your option

I could have ordered my staff to use the dictation equipment, but I refrained. Instead, I conducted sessions where I demonstrated how to use the equipment. I let everyone get familiar with it and then let them decide whether they would use it to do their reports or continue with longhand.

To this day, I am amazed at the diffidence people show in embracing change even when given instruction, follow up, encouragement, time to make the transition, and every other opportunity to embrace the new way of doing things.

Adopt and win

Looking at the larger question, how many of us, throughout the day, week, or month, shun alternative means of accomplishment when the advantages yield such productivity that there is no comparison to the old way? How many of us don’t want to hear about new ways of proceeding in our careers and our lives?

Predictable resistance to change

As a change manager, you may have observed that the moment people are required to make a change in their behaviour, predictable phenomena are likely to occur.

Some or all of your staff members will bemoan what they have to forsake. This occurs even when they didn’t like what they were doing before! We form irrational attachments to the way we have been doing things.

Your job is to acknowledge your team for the ‘sacrifice’ that they will have to make and to commiserate with them for enduring the ‘hardship’ of changing over. Even if you do not intellectually and emotionally agree with your team’s viewpoint, give validation to their feelings. That will prove to be the most helpful gesture in inducing them to move on to what is next.

This is so awkward

Some of your staff members will feel out of place if they try to embrace the new measure.

To give you the experience of what it might be like for your troops, if you’re wearing a belt, take it off and put it on in the opposite direction, securing it at the same loop as before. You feel different, don’t you?

Even the most minor of changes have the potential to throw one off-kilter.

How long would it take you to feel comfortable about reversing the direction of your belt? It could be days, weeks, or even months. Or you could probably adjust in a few minutes. So it is with asking your staff to incorporate various changes. Nearly all changes are likely to cause some feeling of awkwardness, even if for a few moments. Some changes will have a lingering effect. Some will make your people feel self-conscious for days on end.

Anticipating and welcoming resistance

An effective change manager anticipates resistance at the outset of a change campaign. He or she almost welcomes resistance because it’s a sign that the change-process is unfolding.

Consider the situation in which change is perceived to be burdensome, demanding, difficult and meets with little resistance on the part of those charged with executing it. If anything, such a situation would be a cause for alarm, because people would be masking their true reactions.

Eat what they eat

When you understand what your troops are enduring, you have the potential to be a far better manager of them. In the war, a commander was served a lavish meal one evening.  The meal came during a time when rations for his men had to be cut back. He waved away the server, in effect saying “bring me the same level of rations that my men are receiving.”

This commander understood the importance of sharing the experience that his targets of change were experiencing. He could have easily eaten the lavish meal and justified having such a feast. After all, as the commander of the troops, he would need to be mentally sharp. He would need to have the full benefits of a highly-nutritious meal.  However, that would not give him the insights that would naturally accrue as a result of him having the same meal as them.

What about you? How will you act in this scenario? Will you act differently and rationalise the situation? Claim that you instead have the intellectual and emotional capacity to empathise with their experience? Or are you prepared to have the same meal as your targets of change?

This was first published in the April 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Jeff Davidson
Jeff Davidson is an internationally recognised expert on work-life balance and holds the registered trademark from the USPTO as the “Work-Life Balance Expert”®. He is the author of several popular books including Breathing Space,Simpler Living, and The 60 Second Organizer.