Our last post discussed why our brains are so resistant to change. Today we will do something about it.
The late 20th century brought an information technology revolution the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the invention of the book. Within just two decades the internet became a global information network that carried the entire wealth of human knowledge. Shortly thereafter we got magical pocket computers with which to access this information at anytime from virtually anywhere. And the magical pocket computers even make phone calls! While such a revolution brought with it significant challenges, it is generally seen now as an overwhelming success.
But it wasn’t always viewed that way. The information revolution wiped out entire industries. Remember encyclopedias? Music stores? Travel agencies? Landline phones? Recently I was telling my 9-year-old daughter about a truly wonderful time in my youth: when I first got a landline phone in my bedroom. She grew only more confused as I described the phone, explaining the wire that connected the phone to the wall, and the fact that I couldn’t stray too far from the phone’s base or I would lose the call. Finally, her eyes wide with wonder, she asked, “Was this the same time cars were invented?”
The information revolution took a little longer to hit my world of training and consulting, but hit it did. Like a hurricane it tore through our time-tested models of face-to-face, classroom training. Within less than a year every one of my clients was clamoring for e-learning solutions. Was I happy about this change? Absolutely not! Would I still be around if I hadn’t adjusted? No. No I wouldn’t. Eventually the corporate training world reached a new equilibrium, incorporating e-learning and traditional training, myself and many others fortunate to successfully ride the wave into this brave new world.
Change happens on global scales and personal scales, and any of them might affect you. Regardless of the source and size of the change, here are seven strategies for making that change work for you and for your resistant brain.
- Label and analyze your change-resistant feelings. Often we feel that first rush of fear or anxiety and act on it before taking time to pause and uncover the source of that fear. After a bit of thought, we will often find there is not a strong basis for our fears, and we can begin to adjust those feelings. We may say to ourselves, “I’ve been told our entire department is going to be restructured and this makes me anxious. That’s okay. I’ve been anxious before and I will be again, but I do not need to act on that anxiety.” Once labeled, you can begin to analyze the situation: “Is my anxiety really based in fact? While there are some things I like about the current structure, there are definitely things that could be improved. Even if it’s not perfect, this change probably doesn’t warrant such fear or anger from me. Let’s take a closer look and learn more.” We have found that in the majority of cases, our initial emotional reaction is out of proportion to the likely risks.
- Honor the past to anchor the future. Accepting change requires letting go of at least some of the past, but not all of it. Our brains prefer the safety of the well-known past to the blank tunnel that is the future. Reflecting on the good times prior to the change—and those things that will NOT change moving forward—helps us feel anchored. We are not forgetting the past, but using what we learned there to move to something new and better. We can take a mental trip down memory lane, reminding ourselves of the successes we experienced prior to the change. We can pay special attention to our previous successful experiences with change. We might say to ourselves, “You know, at my previous company we had organizations restructuring almost yearly. I had a lot of success when we changed to X. I can find success in this change too. After all, I get to keep my office, and while I won’t be working with Jill and Sam anymore, I’ll still get to work with Mike and Carrie, which is great!”
- Analyze the pros and cons, recognizing that we will be biased. Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying that our theories determine what we see. When struggling under the weight of fear or anger that change might cause us to feel, we fall into the trap of our own selective perceptions. We ignore or downplay the pros of the change, and exaggerate the cons. Conversely, we overplay the pros of leaving things the way they are, and dismiss the cons of the current system. Recognizing this bias in ourselves is a great way to take a more balanced look at how we can best utilize the advantages of the change, while also managing the cons.
- Partner with the change lovers. There will always be someone who loves the change, whatever it might be. Find that person and team up with them to move forward. Their biased outlook in favor of the change will help balance our own biased view against it. Their energy will also be contagious, giving us the feelings of excitement and hope that can help us act on the new change. Partnering with those who have already embraced the change is a version of the classic “fake it ’til you make it” strategy. Eventually we will find our own feelings about change shifting toward the positive.
- Plan. The fact is, not all change is going to be good. A strong plan is insurance against that fact, allowing us to pull value from virtually any change we are required to make, even if the overall change proves to be a bad idea. Together with our new change-loving friends we can plan precisely how we wish to navigate the change. What is likely going to work for us and how can we make full use of it? What challenges are likely to arrive and how can we manage them? To sooth our anxious brains, we can also play the “what if” game. We can ask ourselves, “What if this happens? What if this person does this? What if…?” and put together strategies for managing the what ifs, in order of likelihood. Brains feel better when they feel in control. A good plan does that.
- Act, publicly, and sooner rather than later. By doing things to embrace the change publicly, we create accountability for ourselves. It is a way to lock ourselves into a certain path. Once the brain knows it must be going in a certain direction, it is less likely to fight against it. By acting sooner rather than later, we avoid “paralysis by analysis.” A perfect plan is not required to begin taking action, to commit ourselves to a particular course, and to move forward.
- Avoid the plague of perfectionism. Throughout this entire process, and before failure ever occurs, recognize and accept that failure is an integral component of change, and it will happen. Just because we make mistakes or something doesn’t go as planned does not mean we chose the wrong path, or that the change was bad. We can accept the fact of failure before it happens, commit to learning from it, and utilize those lessons as we continue.
For Your Consideration
- Who do you know who is great at embracing change? Talk to that person. Ask them what they do to manage change effectively.
- Make a list of what you plan to do differently when faced with change in the future, in both your personal and in your professional life.
- Look for opportunities to try new things in a low-risk environment, something that will not hurt your career or your relationships when you fail. Try karaoke (which, granted, may hurt some relationships, but the damage is unlikely to be permanent). Learn a new language or a musical instrument. Anything that pulls you out of your comfort zone will acclimate your brain to change, and decrease the emotional response to future change.