How to Survive Change in a World Full of It
In an attempt to explain – perhaps contain – the world around us this year, the term “polycrisis”is now on the scene, referring to a cluster of global risks with compounding effects, such as the war in Ukraine, global recession, or climate change. Even if we can’t quite embrace the term “polycrisis”, we feel its effects. Uncertainty swirls around us, and change unsettles us daily. For example, each week as another major organization announces layoff’s the size of a small town, we can relate to the fear and uncertainty of those who have lost jobs and those who are left behind. How long will it take me to find a new job? Will I be next to go? What is my new role? Who is my new boss?
There is a reason that change makes us feel uncomfortable at best and at worst threatened or afraid. It is because change usually involves a loss of something fundamental and deeply important to us. It could be the loss of identity (who am I?), the loss of control (I feel overwhelmed), or the loss of meaning (what is the point?). It’s not surprising then that organizational change programs – even if they don’t involve layoff’s – can elicit fear and trepidation, and why so many programs fail to achieve lift-off.
But, when we recognize where resistance is coming from and why, we can do something about it. And that brings us to the mind – the control center of our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and habits. When we understand how our minds typically respond to change, we can then address and reprogram the mind’s default reactions into something more positive and productive.
How do our minds respond to change? To put it simply, not well. Neurologically, there are several reasons for this. First, our minds have evolved to be super smart about the outlay of energy. We find mental shortcuts. We rely on habits to get things done efficiently. We often go into autopilot mode to dedicate as little conscious thought as possible to our actions. In short, we are creatures of habit who take comfort from routines. When change kicks in, all routines and comforts are turned upside down.
The second thing that our minds love is information. Conversely, our minds hate uncertainty which is perceived as a threat. In the face of it, our minds react in one of two ways: fighting or fleeing. We either try to escape the feelings of anxiety and fear that uncertainty triggers, or we try to wrestle with the uncertainty through knowledge-gathering and problem-solving, convinced that we can think our way through it.
Our neurological programming can produce very recognizable behaviors and emotions when we encounter change in our lives – either at work or in our personal lives. For example, shock, denial, and frustration. These behaviors were initially codified in the Kubler-Ross Change Curve model which has been fundamental in helping people and organizations globally to understand the change process and human reactions to it.
Inspired by the Change Curve and informed by our years working with global clients, we have defined the two possible paths through a major change in the business context (like a strategic transformation, merger, or massive reorganization). Path 1 (the gray line in the graph below) will look familiar. It’s the default path we can all wander when change –and specifically how our minds react to change – is ignored and unmanaged. It’s the path that drains one’s mental energy, lowers performance and engagement, and torpedoes any hope that changes will belong-lasting.
Path 1: The Unmanaged Path
Denial: We look for evidence that the change is not real or will pass.
Resistance: We recognize that things are different, but we don’t accept the changes.
Caution and Distress: We are paralyzed by the weight of change and overcautious in the execution of them.
Overload: We are overwhelmed by competing priorities and tasks.
Withdrawal: We disconnect from the situation and feel increasingly apathetic.
Fatigue: We are exhausted from the change and reaching burn-out.
Path 2 (the yellow line in the graph below) is the alternative. This is the way forward through change when we replace default reactions with new mindsets. It’s the path that allows us to face change with increasing energy and engagement and to forge ahead in a positive direction. Here are the mindsets to cultivate:
Path 2: The Mind Managed Path
Beginner’s Mind: Instead of denying the change, we stay radically open and try to see reality with fresh eyes.
Purpose: We counteract our resistance by prioritizing that which gives meaning to ourselves and others.
Courage: We find the inner strength to move out of our comfort zones and enter challenging situations to be of benefit.
Mental Agility: Instead of feeling overloaded, we adapt to change by flexibly adjusting our attention and toggling between focus and awareness.
Optimism: We fully accept a situation for what it is presently and still feel confident about the future.
Presilience: We open ourselves up to challenges so that we are better able to respond to stressors as they arise.
Reorganizations, layoff’s, and organizational transformations will always be part of the business landscape. They are necessary processes as companies evolve to be better versions of themselves. And the humans involved will still find them hard. We are wired that way. But we don’t have to let our minds pull us on to a path that is difficult and draining. We can step into the driver’s seat and choose a new road. By actively adopting new mindsets, we can transform our experience of change into something positive, even rewarding.