Change from the Inside Out
Most everyone reading these words will recognize that we are in an incredible period of change. Whether we like it or not, we face nearly constant change individually, organizationally, and even societally.
In Change From the Inside Out, Erika Andersen tackles the issue of change, why it’s avoided, and a five-step model for addressing it. Erika is the founding partner of Proteus, a coaching, consulting and training firm that centers on leader readiness and the author of many books on strategy and leadership.
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” -Maya Angelou
Why We Struggle with Change
So many books, articles, and talks on “change” and yet we still struggle with it. Why is that?
Blame it on our history as a species: I believe we’re wired to see change as threatening and dangerous. Think about it: until quite recently, most people’s lives changed very little from beginning to end. A hundred or two hundred or a thousand years ago, each individual’s life was fairly stable and unchanging: you lived where your parents and grandparents had lived, and did the things they had done. Your village, your church, and your work all had predictable and stable rhythms and rituals. When change occasionally came, it was almost always a danger and a disruption; the safest course of action was to return to the known. If there was a famine – you wanted to get back to eating regularly. If there was an invading army – you wanted to get back to peace and prosperity. You get the idea. Most of the time, returning to a previous set of stable conditions was the way to go.
So even though our lives are vastly different now, with changes large and small happening daily and sometimes hourly – those many thousands of years of change-is-bad wiring are still affecting us.
Why did you decide to tackle this topic now?
Even before the pandemic hit two years ago, I observed the rate of change in business and in life speeding up dramatically, and we saw through our coaching and our change practice that most people – and most organizations – weren’t dealing with it very well. I got curious about why change is so hard for us (which led to the conclusion I just shared), and also about what happens when an individual human goes through a change: I wanted to figure out how change really works, on an individual level, in order to help people re-wire themselves to become more change-capable.
So what did you find out – how do we go through change?
What we discovered is that when any change is first proposed, most people immediately want to know three things: what does this change mean to me, why is it happening, and what will it look like when the change has been made? We gather this information intuitively, in order to begin to assess the level of risk and difficulty involved in the change.
As people begin to ask these questions, their initial mindset (again, based on many thousands of years of change being a threat) is usually that the change will be difficult, costly, and weird. Difficult means “I don’t know how to do this, and/or other people are going to make it hard for me to do this.” Costly means, “this will take from me things I value.” This may be time or money but is likely to involve more intrinsic and invisible valuables like identity, power, reputation or relationships. And weird just means strange and unnatural: “This isn’t the way we do things around here.”
In observing this pattern, in our clients and in ourselves, we noticed that people only begin to be open to accepting, embracing and making a change when their mindset starts to shift from “this change is going to be difficult, costly and weird” to “I believe this change could be easy, rewarding and normal.”
Once someone starts to believe that a change could be easy (or at least doable); that the rewards of making the change will outweigh the costs; and that the change could become normal – that is, that it could be “the way we do things,” only then will that person begin to be willing to operate in the new ways the change requires – they’ll learn and do the new behaviors, and the change can occur.
We came to call this process the “Change Arc”: when someone begins to make that mindset shift it’s as though they’re cresting the top of a hill, and everything gets easier from that point onwards.
“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” -Winston Churchill
5 Steps to Change
Let’s talk about the five-step change model you share early in the book. Why is it effective?
The most important aspect of our change approach is that it integrates the human side of change – the Change Arc I outlined above – with the nuts and bolts requirements of making organizational change. In other words, it provides a path to assess, clarify, plan and make a change – all the practical aspects – while at the same time cascading everyone in the organization through their own Change Arc around the change.
We’ve found it’s the best approach for making sure a change actually takes hold and is successful in an organization. And it also supports everyone in the organization, and the organization itself, to become better at making any future change; more change-capable overall.
When you work with a leadership team or organization, what do you use to assess whether they will be ready for change?
That’s a great question. We first notice how they talk about change: are they willing to acknowledge the human side of change, or do they insist on talking about it as though it’s a purely logistical effort and assume that “people will get with the program”? Are they willing and able to acknowledge the time, effort and investment it will take to make big changes, or do they consistently under-estimate what the change will require?
Fortunately, we most often find that when we help leaders see how change actually works, and what’s required to make real change, they’re open to revising their understanding.
Employee resistance is a common issue in major change efforts. How do you best overcome it?
We encourage leaders not to think in terms of “employee resistance” to change – because most people define “resistance” as something unnecessary and inappropriate that needs to be “overcome.” Instead we explain the Change Arc, and help leaders see that employees’ initial hesitation about change – their starting belief that it’s going to be difficult, costly, and weird – is in fact a normal and legitimate response, based on thousands of years of conditioning. Once they see that initial self-protective mindset as being OK, then they’re much better able to provide the information and support to help their folks make the mindset shift to “easy, rewarding and normal” that will allow them to be open to the change.
“Leaders need to embrace and demonstrate the new behaviors the change requires before asking that of their people.” -Erika Andersen
Speak to the new leader who is excited to embark on the change journey. What should she look out for?
My single most important advice for new leaders enthusiastic about change is, “put on your own mask before attempting to help others.” Too many new leaders try to “make” their folks go through change without doing their own work to make sure they’re fully understanding and accepting the change. Leaders need to embrace and demonstrate the new behaviors the change requires before asking that of their people. Seeing your leader embody a change is a huge part of believing that change is “normal.”
Second, I’d encourage the new leader to be patient with people. Do a lot of real listening at the beginning of a change; take in and acknowledge their discomfort and hesitation. And then, when they let you know you’ve understood their concerns, start involving them in addressing those concerns. Ask: “How could we make this easier and more rewarding?” or “What can we do to make this our new normal?” Listen to their responses and incorporate them into your planning.
How do companies embrace a culture of change?
I talk a lot in the book about assessing your company culture to see whether it’s change-capable and change-supportive; too many company cultures are actively anti-change. Your company’s values can give you good insight into this. For example, if your company values things like “stability” or “tradition,” it’s likely that change will be more difficult – will be seen as a threat to those values.
We help our clients revise those kinds of change-impeding values to retain the core hopes they embody without keeping the company from moving forward. For instance, a value of “stability” might be shifted to “balance,” which is a more dynamic version of the same idea. Instead of “tradition,” you might focus on “wisdom” – a value for learning from experience, without being bound by the past.
Making sure that your company espouses, promotes and rewards change-supportive values will make it easier for everyone in the organization to become more change-capable.
For more information, see Change From the Inside Out.
Image Credit: Jene Yeo.