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How We Experience And Process Change

In this episode, we are going to look at how we experience and process change.  Understanding how we are reacting, and how others could be reacting, gives us a foundation to lead through change and to lead with empathy in what are often emotionally charged environments.

Are you ready?  Its time to get curious and make some choices!

How Good Are You At Managing Change?

We all like to think we are great, or at least good, at change. It’s become something of a CV cliche and I’m not sure I can remember the last time I read a CV or application that didn’t make that claim.  And it’s probably not surprising since making changes is intertwined with the role of a manager and of a leader.  Even if you are not leading large scale change programmes, every manager is tasked with making something better, making either small incremental changes or large leaps.  

But how good are we really with change?  Our recent experiences with changes forced on us by the pandemic give us a lot of clues, and reflecting on your reactions is a really valuable exercise and one I would encourage you to do.

But it can seem too big and unreal to be applicable to our work and the changes we lead so let’s try a little experiment or two.

It’s not a secret that I’m a huge coffee fan and ready access to good coffee is something I take seriously.  When I moved house my kitchen was far from perfect but it was the room which needed the least urgent attention, so getting the coffee making station set up was one of the first things I did.  The mugs went in the glass-fronted mug cupboard and the rest by the power sockets, at the opposite end of the room, and so it stayed with me walking up and down the room each time I wanted to make coffee - until eventually, someone suggested I moved the mugs nearer to where I make coffee, and since it seemed like a good plan I did.  

Now, it's only a small change, and one I had instigated but two weeks later I still found myself walking to the mug cupboard and getting grumpy as I wondering where the mugs were.  So if you want to see how good you really are with change try rearranging your kitchen!

Or maybe if that feels a bit drastic, try moving things around on your desk!  Or here is a fun one to try - most people who wear trousers always put the same leg on first, so next time you put some on notice which leg it is.  Then the next time try putting the opposite leg in first and notice just how disconcerting it is.

When you have tried these ask yourself if you still think you are good at change!

Ice Cream Brain

Here is the thing to remember, no matter how much experience we have with change or leading change, we still experience the emotions and the process involved in change when it happens.  

Think of change a bit like ice cream, sometimes when you eat ice cream you are going to get that ice cream brain freeze - you know the one where you head hurts and you have to make a real effort to keep breathing and you literally can’t think of anything apart from how much this hurts.  It can happen to anyone no matter how good you are at eating ice cream, or how often you eat ice cream, trust me I’ve checked this theory for you!

When it comes to ice cream brain freeze you just have to wait for your brain to thaw before you can do anything else - and it’s the same with change.  It can become the main focus of your attention and the attention of the teams around you, and we are still just at the start of the process - knowing change is coming.  

Sometimes we slide right through this initial panic phase, sometimes it takes a little longer.  What’s happening is that our brain is overwhelmed by the fight or flight reaction, we may get into hyper-productive mode, pushing to get things back to how they were, or we might push the change away and deny it is happening.  Either way, we are at the top of the roller-coaster that is the change curve.

The Change Curve

The process was first documented by the psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who studied grief extensively and broke it down into five key stages.  Those five stages have also been found to apply to change, which often initially feels like a loss too, even when it’s a positive change, we grieve for the things that are stopped or lost because of the change.  

The five stages are often displayed as a curve, a kind of lopsided smile, starting high on the left-hand side with the first stage which is denial. We then swoop steeply down through anger and frustration, the second stage and into the bottom of the curve - where we find the third stage depression.  Next, as we start to move gradually up the other side of the curve comes bargaining, that bit where we try and work out what the change actually means for us and how we can make it work until finally, the curve flattens out and we have accepted the change and can start building on it and performing again.

Now that all sounds very calm and ordered but we know from our own experiences that it often doesn’t feel that way.  We swing around on the curve taking two steps forward and then maybe one or two backwards again and there is a definite period where we spin round the bottom of the curve almost as if we are in a washing machine.

Right from the start, we are all going to experience different reactions to the changes that are happening and we are going to progress through the change curve at different paces.  As leaders, we need to recognise that and we need to get curious about our own experiences of change so that we can learn to manage ourselves through future changes and so we can authentically lead our teams through with us.  

We are going to look at what we need to do to lead others through the change curve on the next episode, and for now, let’s focus on understanding how the process impacts us.

The Kubler-Ross Change Curve

How Can We Move Through The Change Curve?

We know the process consists of going from denial, through frustration and anger to depression and onto bargaining, round the loop a few times and then ultimately out the other side to acceptance and finally back to performance applies in the workplace.  It's not realistic, or even a good idea, to expect a team to perform well while they are going through change.  The goal, while change is happening, is to process the change effectively.

So what can we do to move ourselves along the curve?  Well, there is no one easy answer - it depends on you and it depends on the change.

There is however an important concept which provides the foundation for the right answer for each of us, and which as a leader makes it much less frustrating when leading others through change.

Put simply the concept is that while you can’t control what happens to you, you can choose how you react.  It may not always feel that way, and sometimes our responses to things have become so automatic that we don’t see any alternatives, but we always have a choice.  We won’t always like those choices and the consequences that follow them, but that choice is always there.  

If we take the example of changes at work, if you don’t like them you could choose to try and make the changes better, you could try sabotaging them, you could choose to do nothing, or ultimately you could choose to leave the company. The consequences of your choices will vary depending on how you react.  You may not see them all as choices even, but what is really happening is that your brain is discounting them because of the consequences even before you have acknowledged that they are an option.

Avoid and Abdicate or Curious Choices

So how does this work in knowing you have a choice and that you can choose your reaction when you are faced with change?

Well at any point in time you can avoid and abdicate or you can get curious about your situation and make choices.  Let’s work each of those options through.  

When you take the avoid and abdicate route what happens initially is that you wait and see what is happening, and sometimes that can be a good thing if you have an ice cream brain freeze caused by the change doing nothing while it thaws is a good choice to make.  However, if you continue to avoid and abdicate you will find yourself saying things like ‘I can’t do this’ and making lots of excuses about why you are not engaging with the change.  Ultimately you will start blaming others and taking no responsibility for what is happening.  You will become a victim of the change.

In terms of what is happening on the change curve, people who get stuck in avoiding and abdicating are going to, at best, get stuck at the bottom of the change curve.  If you think about the changes you have experienced I’m sure you can think of people who have ended up appearing to be victims of change.

Curious Choices to Accountable behaviours

The alternative is you get curious and make choices.  This starts with recognising that the change is happening, and investing time in getting to understand what is changing and why.  Maybe this will lead to finding some positives about the change, and while it won’t stop you going down the steep slope of the change curve, it will speed things up and it will enable you to move through to embracing the change sooner.  

As as you embrace the change and keep exploring what is happening, the bargaining and acceptance phases of the change will have more positive outcomes more quickly.  By getting curious and making choices you will be finding solutions and making things happen - things will be happening because of you - and that is what we as leaders want and out teams need!

If you think about either yourself or people you know and how they have responded to change, you will probably find examples of this in action.  And if you want an external example, take a look at how the different world leaders communicated about what was happening with Corona Virus.  You could compare Jacinta Ardern’s ‘So this has happened and this is what we are doing’  approach with Donald Trump’s ‘Blame China’ approach.

Summary & Taking Action

In this episode, we have covered

How good are we really at change?  It’s something we put on our CV’s but no matter how much change we have been through we can still get tripped up by it, and we can still get an initial Ice cream brain when there is a lot of change going on.  If you try one of the little experiments I outlined earlier and reflect on your personal reactions to the Covid Pandemic you can see how you react to both small and large changes.  We are living through a huge immersive experience of change at the moment and its an opportunity for us all to learn a lot.

We looked at the Change Curve, how our reactions change over time, from initial denial, through frustration and anger, depression, bargaining and then acceptance.

And then we looked at how we can choose our reaction to the situations we find ourselves in, we can avoid and abdicate ending up as a victim of the changes, or we can get curious, make choice and end up leading and making things happen.  The choice is yours.

The things I share are based on my experiences and some will be more relevant to you than others - it’s up to you to decide what you take and apply from this podcast.  That’s what curious choice leadership is all about - getting curious and building our understanding then evaluating what we find and making choices about what’s right for us and our business.  

And the questions I would like to leave you with are:

What have you learned about yourself and your reactions to change?  

And then how are you going to apply what you have learned?