by Anurag Harsh
When you want to change your circumstances, you have to commit fully. Action cannot wait. Taking the time to consider the pros and cons, to cook up a strategy, to weigh out the evidence is not precursor to change but rather a concerted effort to bring to life a reality that as of now only exists in your mind.
From the onset, change-seekers must be courageous. There will be setbacks, there will be customs to confront, there will be resistance, there will be lessons to learn about communication and sensitivity, about reciprocity and solidarity, and there will also be discomfort. There is much at stake, which is why change shouldn’t be an ad hocprocess. It’s a journey into uncharted territory; it’s best to be prepared.
So, the rub is that if you want to change your life or your company, you need courage and a strategy.
How to Smooth the Way for Change that Defies Convention
There will always be reasons to stop pursuing the change you seek. The reasons will assail you from every direction: your inner voice will try to dissuade you; the people around you will try to dissuade you.
Society and the people are full of prohibitions and rules. That’s an inexorable part of social environments that can sometimes hinder individual progress. If what you’re proposing is a bold move that defies accepted norms, overcoming resistance from wherever it arrives will require constant effort.
When you are face-to face-with detraction, remember a few things.
A simple, concise and repeatable summary that captures the end-goal of the change you seek has numerous benefits. A summary can ease communication, make the change feel more real, and increase persuasive power. The summary also serves as a guidepost and a motivational wellspring. The summary should communicate the inspiration behind the change too. Be it your employees, your friends, or your significant other, the listener should readily grasp why this vision of the future is most desirable.
Communicate the Change
Whatever the change is, you are its mouthpiece and so you are the best person to communicate the steps necessary for acceptance. According to Kevin Eiken Berry and Guy Harris in From Bud to Boss, taken from a leadership perspective the fulcrum point of great change is often how well you communicate the change to those you want to convince. Their 10-point strategy is an excellent litmus test to apply before presenting your idea:
- Draw in Imaginations. Drawing people in requires one-on-one, personal conversations. Remember, people choose to change based on their beliefs. So, to help them see the dissatisfaction you see, believe in the vision, understand the steps and reduce apparent risk is, likely as not, more about conversation and less about the beauty of your PowerPoint.
- Inspire Ownership. You must help people identify their place in your vision. A self-serving future lacks mass appeal. A collective vision with clear benefits for all possesses solidarity.
- Show Process. One of the biggest mistakes that leaders make in communicating change is falling prey to the Curse of Knowledge. As originator, you are intuitively familiar with the process that brought you to the conclusion that change is necessary. Others must be shown that process in a broken-down and relatable way.
- Call It a Journey. Especially if the change is big and complex, you must mollify intimidation by emphasizing that change is a journey, slow-going and gainly. Give assurance that the change will take time and that supporters will have time to learn and adjust incrementally.
- Ask Questions. Use questions to open lines of communication. Questions get people talking. Ask questions to understand their feelings about the change.
- Small Bites. Build a new status quo gradually. By advancing on the change a little bit at a time, you allow people to adapt to novelty.
- Ask Questions. Why is this here again? It’s here again because it’s that important for effective communication.
- Give It Words. Naming a thing grants power and confidence: you help people grasp the thing and make it easier for everyone—you included—to talk about it.
- Celebrate Progress. Celebrate any and all gains. Completion, effort, and personal challenges are all candidates for celebration. If you want to maintain and build momentum, if you want to keep people on track, you must celebrate progress.
- Take Responsibility. As a leader, own success and failure. Don’t displace blame: use shortcomings as opportunities for growth and proportionately revel in triumph.
Just as crucial as what you say and why you say it is how you say what you say. Some general tips on communication that others have shared with me along the way and that I’ve picked up from experience are: speak with not at people; ask open-ended questions, not accusatory ones; demonstrate respect by default; speak about what you want rather than what you don’t want; use “and” more than “but” (the former amplifies while the latter disqualifies); keep the listener’s self-interests in mind; listen deeply not just actively (conversation is not two simultaneous monologues).
Deviation from the Norm Can Be Uncomfortable
The nature of the change you seek can be a great source of discomfort. Discomfort can hamper dialogue, and undo attempts at honest and transparent communication. We are prone to discomfort avoidance. It’s in our nature. Most of us don’t like to feel exposed or vulnerable. This can present a stumbling block to change, causing dissent, disgruntlement, or fraction.
Talk-Friendly is an approach to tame the elephant in the room. It underscores the importance of acknowledging feelings of discomfort and both the implicit and explicit assumptions and beliefs at play in any given conversation. This may sound aggressive, and it will probably be perceived as aggressive, which is why the general rules I listed above are vital.
The Talk-Friendly approach is a three-part process:
- Identify the source of doubt or discomfort.
- Uncover underlying assumptions in an open and curious manner.
- Make it safe for the person to share perspectives without fear of backlash.
Keep at the forefront of your mind that true, enduring change is never insular. It may start with the individual but invariably includes other people. It’s social. It occurs among real people with real (or imagined) issues that have real (or imagined) consequences. The greater your sensitivity to context, the greater your chances of success.
Sensitivity to context is in part intuitive and inborn, and in part learned. I believe that there are common and predictable underlying sources of tension that can eek out of us when we are uncomfortable or in disagreement. In Leadership and the Art of Struggle, Steven Snyder points out some of these common sources of tension.
He explains that tension spawns from a number of sources; some tensions being so deeply ingrained that even the feeler fails to recognize their source. Tension can arise from individual or institutional traditions (past), from aspirations (future), as well as from outward (relationships) and inward (core identity) traits.
Tensions of tradition arise when one confronts established customs, practices, norms, and habits. Tensions of aspiration arise when one confronts visions of the future that clash with our own. Tensions of relationships arise when one confronts power dynamics, personal scripts, and identity politics. Tensions of identity arise when one confronts values, beliefs, history, allegiances, emotions, and often spirituality.
The two straightforward yet complex antidotes to tension that Steven Snyder proposes are to (1) reimagine the conflict and to (2) focus on how you are contributing to the tension such that you might change.
I’ll say a little on those strategies momentarily. I want to get a word in about frame of reference. We often get caught up in the moment when tensions arise. Conflict has the power to absorb us and to distort our perceptions. Remember always that tensions are fears. We are all afraid of something. And secondly that getting through those tensions can lead to a better future, inclusive solutions, and the change you wish to see in the world.
As for the strategies, the goal is to self-reflexively look at tensions as disconnects that are bridgeable through creativity and receptivity. Sometimes the solution is to recast the tension in new terms, with a metaphor, or to get a second opinion. Tensions are not problems although they are problematic. They are foibles that make us human. And when they are released, so too is great motivation and energy.
Setbacks Are Everyone’s Problem
There are noticeable early warning signs that your proposed changes are going to encounter resistance. Now, resistance isn’t always intentional. Broadly stated, resistance anything that impedes forward progress. That said, all resistance is a setback.
As the change-seeker, you must equip yourself with patience, temperance, communicativeness, and a vision to cope with and surmount resistance. If you are especially adept, resistance can be transformed into fuel that drives your change.
Confusion is a conspicuous setback. No matter how clearly you express the journey and vision, some people might not grasp any of it. Militate against confusion by asking questions.
Another culprit is silence. That’s a tough one to handle. Don’t assume that silence means acceptance. It can be a loud form of dissent. Again, ask questions. Prod your audience.
Diversion is another culprit of resistance. You’ll frequently encounter members of the “yeah, but…” tribe. As is the case with resistance, some diversions are deliberate while others are unconscious. Acknowledge diversion openly to turn it around. Don’t’ shy away from dissent; embrace it to disarm it.
It isn’t easy to confront resistance. When we are opposed, criticized, rebuked, or misunderstood, it elicits a spate of emotions: anger, vengeance, frustration, shame, disillusion. Remember that no matter how good your plan is you will always face resistance of some kind. Don’t take detraction personally.
In Choosing Change, Walter McFarland and Susan Goldsworthy caution that change-seekers should expect setbacks and commit to pushing through them. Beyond that they should find ways of exploiting setbacks.
Some typical setbacks are:
- Reduced Priority of the Change Effort Over Time. The realities of business stealthily supersede and distract from the change effort. When the primacy of a revolutionary change effort begins to flounder, the effort is jeopardized.
- Loss of Vision. The main motivator of a change can be obscured for a number of reasons. Often the effort required to effectuate change can discourage people from continuing, as they prefer the inconformity that is known. Keep everyone looking forward to avoid myopia.
- Senior Leadership Opposition. Senior leadership consensus is critical to wide-scale change in an organization. Although grassroots movements can help set the stage, eventually Senior-level support will be requisite. The senior leadership must be on board.
- Ineffective Change Leadership. It’s important to recognize whether you are the best person to spearhead the change. You don’t have to take the sidelines but realistically not every person is adept at moving masses. After some self-analysis, if you realize that’s the case for you, align with someone who can be the ying to youryang.
- Derailers. Also known as unexpected occurrences that threaten the success of change efforts. Derailers arise from the growing complexity of the competitive environment: increasing globalization, unprecedented competition, more or different stakeholders, economic uncertainty, energy constraints, resource scarcity and political instability.
How to Bring About Lasting Change in the Workplace
Change is a journey to learning, no matter if at the end there is success or failure. There are enduring lessons to be gleaned from simply embarking on an unlikely course in the earnest pursuit of collective, positive change. As I said, all change is invariably social: the more people are on-board, so too the more conduits there should be for information exchange and reflection.
Encourage Learning. Act as an intermediary who provides context and perspective. You are not a micro-manager. Let people find their own path so long as their vision is clear.
- Encourage Team-Building. Act as weaver who takes the attributes and skills of others and combines them in new, holistic, and vision-driven ways.
- Encourage Intra-Organizational Sharing: Act as architect who builds the structures and processes needed to share and mobilize learning across the organization. Without shared learning, there is no sustainable change.
Bringing about change, above all else, is a personal challenge that makes demands on your mind, body, and spirit. It takes great courage and empathy. It summons your biases and forces you to confront the vices and virtues of others. It creates gaping divisions and lasting bonds. But when it’s successful, the journey to change can remake lives and reveal previously unseen potentials.