The pace of change in today’s world is truly staggering. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter referred to the impact of much disruptive change as “creative destruction”. Catchy phrase until you have to deal with those impacts in your own life. In our world today we are seeing this happen on a global basis and no industry or business is immune.
I read an article yesterday about a new material called graphene, described as:
The strongest, thinnest material known to exist. A form of carbon, it can conduct electricity and heat better than anything else. And get ready for this: It is not only the hardest material in the world, but also one of the most pliable. Only a single atom thick, it has been called the wonder material. Graphene could change the electronics industry, ushering in flexible devices, supercharged quantum computers, electronic clothing and computers that can interface with the cells in your body.
The potential positive impacts of this wonderful new discovery could have significant advantages eventually in everyone’s lives. Great opportunities abound but it will have an incredibly disruptive impact on so many industries, and the people that work in them, that are currently using other types of materials. So what does this have to do with change and its impact on you? The answer is plenty and in this article, I’d like to explore:
- That although the full impact of changes are hard to predict, how change impacts us emotionally and psychologically is fairly predictable;
- How to use these perspectives to assist us in working through the inevitable changes that will impact our jobs and lives.
The changes we endure are varied. Mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, closings, reorganizations, implementing new systems, and new bosses are but a few of them, and I have experienced them all in my career. Each poses unique challenges, but there are common themes that should resonate with us all.
The first is that when changes are announced, we all go through our own personal calculus about how the proposed changes will affect us. What will the new boss be like and how will they view my skills and style? Will the new operating system take advantage of my previous knowledge or will I have to face a challenging learning curve that puts me at risk? In a merger or acquisition, are there duplicate roles that make me potentially redundant? If I have had my head down doing my job and living my life while neglecting the need to network, how do I restart that?
Although we may intellectually understand the need for new systems, the rationale for a merger, or why I was passed over for a promotion for someone with more relevant experience, emotionally we can get “stuck” in dealing with these issues. The primary reason is our initial reaction to many changes is that we expect that the impact on us will be a negative – a LOSS. The key challenge is that there is so much that is unknown about many changes until they develop further. There may not be much clarity we can count upon.
In his groundbreaking book on change, Managing Transitions, author William Bridges looks at change in three stages:
- Endings: Letting Go of the Old
- Neutral Zone: The Wilderness as the New Reality Develops
- The New Beginning
It is in the Endings that our concerns about how the changes will impact us – our losses – really weigh upon us. It is very important here to:
- Gather as much information about what’s going on as possible. Attend informational meetings. Read whatever you can. Ask your leadership about what they expect or know. Accept their answer of “I don’t know” because it will often be true at that point in time.
- Maintain as positive an attitude as possible. As Yoda said to Luke Skywalker, “Don’t give in to the Dark Side”. It is during these times that “Catastrophic Fantasies” can flourish – worst-case scenarios about what may or may not happen that are not grounded in any reality. Sometimes this is a little like gallows humor and I would encourage you to avoid it. It can be like a feeding frenzy among co-workers and it is unhealthy.
- Re-look at your accomplishments and contributions to the organization. We often are so busy we fail to take stock of all we have done. This is necessary and healthy.
- Re-energize your networking efforts. We often fail to invest any time here for various reasons, mostly because we are too busy or don’t know-how. But develop a list of your top 30 contacts and begin to reach out to see what’s going on in their world and the job market. Do NOT approach this as looking for jobs as that is the wrong way to relaunch this effort. If you would like a great summary on networking, please shoot me an email and ask to be sent a copy of “The Need for Networking”.
- Don’t let up on your current duties. I have current clients who are in the midst of being potentially acquired by a competitor. It does not make sense to throttle back on your work now since it reflects your most current contributions. You may be fighting a malaise with your co-workers or team, but strive for making happen whatever you can.
The Neutral Zone, or Wilderness, can be very difficult because things are on hold and that is very unnerving. We would all like to get things over and move on, but given the complexity of many organizations, that is often not a reality.
Bridges acknowledges that there are three feelings that emerge during the Neutral Phase: Uncertainty, Mistrust, and Self-Preservation. In business, we often resist discussing the impact of feelings because it can get rather messy.
It reminds me of Tom Hanks admonition to one of his female baseball players in “A League of Their Own” when he says, “There’s no crying in baseball!” But we ignore these at our peril:
- Uncertainty: The challenge of change is that it is not a linear or completely logical process. A client of mine likes to say he hires employees but human beings always seem to show up. The human element creates a wide range of reactions to change but a key one is how differently people react to the uncertainty of the situation. Someone once said some people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty. You’ve heard these people before who complain about their jobs. Their boss is an idiot, their coworkers are dunces, the pay and benefits are awful and the commute is a real bear. So you ask them why they don’t look for a new job and their response is, “Well it’s a steady gig and I’ve been there a long time…” My message here is that we can never really understand the depths of how individuals react to the uncertainty of a situation and how it may impact them. For yourself, the issue is always about how you can control what you can control. Reinforce what you can and accept where you cannot.
- Mistrust: Because the situation is changing, many of the things that you counted upon before are in flux. This may reduce the trust level you have for the organization, the leadership, and even your boss. If you relied on certain promises or expectations, this can be very difficult. Try to separate the organizational needs from your personal situation.
- Self-Preservation: In times like this we often are asked to “take one for the team” and move beyond the personal impact of any change on you. My response to that is always “Hogwash!” You have every right to be concerned about change on yourself and its impacts on you, your career, and your family. No one is ever going to take care of you better than yourself. You just want to be sure that others don’t get the impression that it is only you that you are worried about as that level of self-focus and selfishness can have an impact on your reputation going forward.
In any change situation that can have a significant impact on your career, always ask yourself four key questions (from Managing Transitions):
- Purpose: Why are we doing this?
- Picture: What’s the big picture here? How does this fit in to what’s happening in the industry, the global marketplace, and how does it exploit the organizational strengths we have?
- Plan: Does the organization have a plan for us or are they making it up as they go along? Seek as much information as you can to understand that.
- Parts: What’s my part and how can I be involved?
Use these 4 P’s to guide your inquiry in the midst of any change.
Lastly, I encourage everyone to re-double their efforts in building relationships and their network of connections on an ongoing basis. This is helpful for you, your career, and your value to any organization longer-term. Make this a priority going forward.
Change is always going to be difficult. Keep in mind these inspiring words from that great philosopher, Woody Allen:
It’s not that I’m afraid of death. It’s just that I don’t want to be there when it happens.
Prepare yourself for changes and you can enjoy the ride no matter how bumpy it may be. Remember, although change is difficult for everyone, use the transition to:
- Reflect on your skills and accomplishments and the contributions you make to organizational success;
- Re-energize your networking process and skills. You need to be engaged here ALL the time.
I look forward to your comments below.