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Posted by on Aug 18, 2011

Change Can Be Fantastic

Change can be fantastic. Really.

Late summer tends to bring on a time of change in people’s lives, and this summer is no exception in my neck of the woods.

Some of my friends are about to send their kids off to school for the first time. They are studying bus schedules and working up the courage to ask their boss for a more flexible work day so they can be with their kids at the beginning and the end of the school day. It is a natural request, yet one that feels hard for some people to make if they work in an office with a culture that seems to value long hours and ‘face time.’ It is easy to feel like an outlier if it isn’t common behavior in your office to decline in-person meetings after 3pm for the sake of personal commitments.

Other friends are preparing to send their kids off to school too – college. These friends are busy helping their kids to pick out dorm supplies; they are double checking their insurance policies to make sure their kids will be covered when away from home; they are lovingly planning the last family meal at home before the composition of their household changes forever. They are learning how to care for their kids in a whole new way through all of these steps. The ones who are married are also learning how to relate to their spouse in a new way, particularly if their college-bound kid is the last one to leave home. No more track meets to schedule dinner around or dry cleaning reminders to work in between car pool runs or soccer practice. There is suddenly more time for ‘real’ conversation again. That can feel fantastic…or scary…or at the very least, unfamiliar. Quite possibly, all of the above at different times.

Times of change present us with an opportunity to demonstrate some curiosity and adaptability. This takes some intention and practice for most people, however. Our brains are wired to appreciate routine. A change to our routine – even a small one – can feel like a threat to the brain, making it hard to adopt a perspective that is open to possibilities. And yet, our brains have a remarkable capacity for continuous learning. When you help your brain to learn to see changes as opportunities you build the capacity to adapt to change more successfully.

There are a few simple questions that I often ask my coaching clients to consider when they are working on their capacity to adapt to change. One question is: “What is one thing about this change that I might like?” This question helps to shift the perspective from a sense of what is being lost to the possibility that the change presents something that would be positive. Another is: “What is one thing I will be relieved to let go of as a result of this change?” I have found that this question is sometimes harder for coaching clients to answer right away, especially if their answer is tied to something they feel a strong sense of responsibility about (like caring for their kids every day). It can be easy for that sense of responsibility to become a sense of identity, making it even harder to let go in the face of change.

Leaders need to be aware of this dynamic when they announce changes in the workplace, too. There are usually many thoughts and emotions that go unspoken during times of change unless leaders make it a point to demonstrate their openness to hearing about what is on people’s hearts and minds. Left unspoken, these thoughts and emotions can fester into unproductive behaviors that show up as lower productivity, increased absences, and sometimes, outright sabotage of the mission. Leaders can do a lot to diminish the fears people may have during times of change by making it safe to surface difficult topics. This is also another way of building individual and organizational capacity for adapting to change.

Change is a constant in life, whether it happens at work or at home. Whether you are experiencing a big change right now or you are leading a change initiative where you work, take a few minutes to ask yourself the questions I have offered and notice what comes up for you. If you have been feeling resistant to the change you may be surprised at how quickly you can shift your perspective and your energy around it by practicing this exercise. If you could see your brain as you do this you would see it creating new thought patterns that will build your capacity to shift to a different perspective. Then, offer the questions to those you lead, and practice some active listening as they share their responses with you. Demonstrate that it is safe for them to bring up whatever concerns or ideas they may have about the change. This will help to lower the sense of threat that the brain experiences during change. Your ability to role model adaptability and openness just may provide your team with the perfect setting for their own possibilities to unfold.

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