I have been pondering about change in organizations at the professional level for quite a while. And the topic has also fascinated me at a more personal level. The angle that interests me most is how we as individuals relate to change. It appears to me that most of us prefer to continue with what is known and familiar to us, provided it is relatively pleasant or at least tolerable. This seems to apply to change in organizations we participate in as well as in our private lives.
As we all can observe, the pace of change is accelerating around us. Most easily observable – and maybe tolerable – is the technological change. We don’t have analog TVs any more and we don’t have our cherished LP or tape players. But on the other hand our TVs now have a sharper picture and take less space, and our audio is of better quality. Our cars are slowly getting greener and we now get pictures from Mars.
That’s all great and we don’t have a problem with most of these developments – apart from the money and effort it takes to “get onboard” with the new.
But if we think back, were we among the first ones to adopt some of these? I certainly wasn’t. There was a bit caution and comfort with the “as is”. I listened to my tapes long after the CDs had come on the market. And listened to CDs, and still do, long after the MP3 players and iPods came into fashion. Of course I now have an iPod and a Kindle to take my music, books and movies on the road when I’m not at home. And I use my smartphone for everything between taking and sending photos and emails to browsing the internet for useful information. And I have a GPS in my car. I have adapted to the new just because it’s helpful and makes my life simpler. And it doesn’t involve much bravery, just my hard-earned money.
I’ve observed that we are much slower to embrace change when it involves various degrees of uncertainty. If we cannot see what is there at the end of the change process, it will be more difficult to accept it, to go with it and to take timely action to determine our own path through it. I believe this applies to our private lives as well as to our professional lives in organizations. In our private lives we can stay in unhealthy situations even when they are barely tolerable, and sometimes not even that. This seems to be because we don’t have a clear picture what life would look or feel like if we leaped and made a change, even a small one like seeking advice or support. Too much uncertainty is scary and ambiguity is not easy to deal with. And we have been trained to be cautious and prudent for ages.
The other day I researched old sayings about change in the few languages I know and found that a huge majority of them encouraged caution. As it is very difficult to translate such sayings, I found some very similar ones in English. Even the quotes on courage and success tend to be a cautionary, such as “the higher you climb, the heavier you fall” from Vietnam.
It may be even more difficult to deal with change in organizations we belong to, simply because we usually have less control over the process. Sometimes we don’t see the need for change. We don’t understand why the change is necessary. At other times we just don’t get enough information about what is going to happen, where all of it is heading, and maybe most importantly how this is going to impact us personally. There simply is too much uncertainty to deal with – so we might resist or even deny the change, at least initially. Even those few of us who may thrive on change, and those who usually can put up with it, can experience initial resistance and even fear when faced with a sudden change. Then there are those of us who almost automatically resist change and for whom it tends to take longer to accept it.
In many instances change is inevitable, particularly in today’s business world. We all react differently, but the better we can learn to go with the flow and adapt to it, the better we will fare at the tail end of it. Sometimes engaging early in a change process will offer us an opportunity to influence the outcomes. At the minimum, such engagement will give us more information on where the change is heading. Other times an optimistic attitude, that focuses on making the best out of the situation, will help us to cope with the change. We will be able to take action on the issues that are in our control. And when we take charge of our own path through the change, we may discover that the outcome is better for us and maybe even more congruent with our life path than the status quo would have been. I have witnessed this happen to many people, including myself.
Finally, I would like to say that change is always stressful at the personal level. It is therefore important that we take good care of ourselves and seek support from others as may be needed. Seeking help and support to cope with change is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of taking charge of the situation we are facing in order to move forward with our lives. Please take care.