Why we need Change Management
Our modern societies are accelerating in several departments of development at an exponential rate: New information technologies, a global interconnection of never seen proportions, a new consciousness beyond nationalities or obsolete social conditioning. The speed of change itself has increased. While many of us are still trapped in old structures that we feel have proven their worth, as a consequence we could be losing connection to the reality unfolding right before our eyes: The always changing now.
Letting go of the illusion of a constant and engaging us in the only constant that is an actual fact, which is change, we will create a progressive, safer and healthier business environment. If modern companies are more willing to take risks and find new strategies, as a result reducing the time needed to abandon obsolete concepts, employees might find them engaged in more creative thinking and enjoying the challenge, while understanding that security means adaptability (because it leads to homeostasis, the desired ‘to be’ state). Logically, while encouraging taking risks, we want to reduce them at the same time. And that is exactly why the ideas of change management are worth spreading.
Gathering experience to have a profound understanding of change is of high significance. Not everyone can have this experience. To learn from the mistakes and successes of others to be encouraged and to be taught is therefore very valuable.
If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.
– Joseph Campbell, mythologist, writer and lecturer
Accepting the inevitable
Not things, but opinions about things, trouble men.
– Epiktet, greek philosopher, school of the stoics
If we want to reap the benefits of increasing our ability to respond to change, we first of all should be curious about the nature of change. In this article I will try to give a basic understanding from a psychological and systemic perspective to gain a foothold in the matter: While change is a natural phenomenon and occurs not only in business but in all life circumstances, commonly many people are concerned when the inevitable happens: They are confronted with change.
Being it change in the working environment, loss in the family or relationships, politics or a shift in society paradigms. The main issue with change is not the change itself, but the opinion people have of it. Safety is more than often associated with the idea of a constant. As an example: The idea of a “forever” is mainly a human construct created to shield the human mind from the inevitable, which we find hard to accept; Marriages can be divorced, people die, friendships can end, health issues could occur any time, accidents happen and in the end we face our own mortality.
Change seems unpredictable and therefore is often perceived as a source of danger, which leads to a stress reaction in most people. The brain has a hard time telling apart the imagined threat from a real one and will react with the release of stress hormones and initiate instinctive behavior through the limbic system. The limbic system is one of the oldest parts in the human brain from an evolutionary perspective. When human society was still in its infancy and tribal life as hunters and gatherers was predominant, a change in the natural environment could be related to a life threatening situation linked to a predator or a sign of an imminent catastrophe. Since survival was depended on quick action, instinctive stress reactions were the answer.
Unfortunately the complexity of a modern society makes a quick stress reaction obsolete. Instead, we strive for new long term strategies that are well thought through in order to increase our chances of success. Past experiences are highly valued and added to the equation. When change is associated with the concept of loss, as in losing the imagined constant, it can lead to frustration and denial of the change (as described in the five stages of grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross). When we are trapped in this mindset of an imagined threat the brain struggles to learn new skills and has a hard time adapting to the change in our environment, dopamine levels drop, we lose focus and are prone to irrational behavior that lacks a long term strategy.
The trouble is that everybody, myself included, has a brain in which the centers concerned with reason and logic are sitting on top of the so called limbic system which we inherited from our reptilian ancestors and which never evolved past crude instincts and emotions. And that is why we have not yet arrived at the sate of homo sapiens.
– Paul Watzlawick, Ultra-Solutions, Or, How to Fail Most Successfully
Change in its nature is not a negative thing. But the opinion we have of it might affect us more than the actual change itself. Reducing the stress reaction and engaging in the natural shift of change, can steer us away from harm that might come to us if we stay in denial. Also: Being reactive to a situation limits our options. A reaction is rarely a conscious process and is merely driven by instinct. Therefore while focusing on avoiding danger, it is quite difficult to respond creatively to a situation. Creativity means having a broader set of options, which leads to a degree of freedom. Staying reactive leads to a state of determinism.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
– Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, creator of logotherapy
Change is inevitable, because the only constant in the universe is change. In order to the reduce the time for adaptation processes, everything that leads to understanding the nature of change, while communicating its benefits, will lead to a shortened stress reaction and improve the lives of people involved. In order to really understand a changes consequences that people are confronted and concerned with, we need to deal with the question “What’s in it for me” stated by employees. The concept of Change Management proposes to put special focus on the people side of change. Being aware of potential losses and gains for different stakeholders enables us to shift focus towards these gains and consequently reduce a stress reaction and even free energy for upcoming tasks. Shifting focus to gains instead of trying to obsessively regain what is already a part of the past, means to be an advocate of acceptance and in the end for change:
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.
– Prof. Carl Rogers, creator of client centered psychotherapy
If we apply this quote of Carl Rogers, we could as well say: “The curious paradox is that when I accept the current state of the company, then I can change it.”
Everything is a system. From the quantum level to microbes, from the singular cells to complex life forms, from planets to galaxy systems. Following that, we of course can describe a company or any kind of business as a system inside of systems, which are exchanging an infinite amount of interaction and information. The human understanding of reality is strongly filtered through concepts, because language is concept orientated. Language only works, if we label things. The labels itself half in inherent meaning. If a chair is a chair, it can only be that, as a result of this we can only see the chairs use in sitting on it. We limit our chances of using a chair creatively if we reduce it to a function that is already known to us.
Our creative possibilities are often limited through the meaning of labels that we do confuse with the actual world. But these labels construct an interpretation of reality and do not represent reality itself. Still: Only through concepts it is possibly for humanity to achieve knowledge and communicate this knowledge to other human beings. This is the reason, why they are useful, but at the same time, not to understand their limitations is problematic. Because the idea of separated entities, which we do label, is merely an illusion. The actual reality is one of infinite fluidity and interaction between systems, that we can only classify as such as an observer from the world of concepts.
Concepts reduce reality to a form, which limits the possibility to see a situation from multiple perspectives (which in psychology could be seen as a re-framing technique or from a philosophical position the Socratic principle). The observations we make give us more information about us as the observer than about the observed systems themselves. It sheds light on the concepts we use or how we choose to reduce a complex reality to a model so we can ‘understand’ it.
On a biological level we prefer a static environment or an environment whose changes are easily to be predicted, because this is perceived as the opposite to a threat. All systems strive for homeostasis which is considered a stable condition. Homeostasis can be understood as the “to be” state, that the system tries to achieve to find itself in a more stable condition. The opposite of stability would be a chaotic state that could be the cause of potential threats, which we could perceive as a source of suffering. Stress is nothing more, than an outside force that that pressures our biological structure to adapt to it if we don’t want to find us in a chaotic state (even though a chaotic state could also be considered a moment of opportunity). Stress is therefore a natural part of our life. But how we perceive this stress is a matter of choice.
Too many people are unaware that it is not outer events or circumstances that will create happiness; rather, it is our perception of events and of ourselves that will create, or uncreate, positive emotions.
– Albert Ellis, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy
If we have a hypothesis about the system that we picture ourselves to be a part of, it will be difficult to now: How real is the reality we perceive us such? f we debate which attitude or strategy to chose when faced with a changing reality, that is hard to define, we might want to judge a hypothesis not necessarily by its accuracy, but by its usefulness.
Being a champion of change
There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.
– Albert Ellis, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy
Managers, leaders, people in charge that do understand change as a natural event and want to communicate this to partners and employees involved, have to develop a very important skill: Empathy. From a professional view point being empathetic does not mean, that you always have to receive approval for your actions or develop feelings of pity. To pity someone is disrespectful in a sense that you perceive them as powerless. Showing someone their responsibilities and opportunities which they could act up on, means to empower them. It does not mean to be heartless either. It means to develop an ability to read human emotions, which are result of their reaction to change. To accept and acknowledge these emotions opens up a door for communication, that could lead to a sort of change benefiting most people involved. Logically, the more people are willing to get on board, the higher will be the chances of success. To take a utilitarian approach is useful.
It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.
– Jeremy Bentham, English philosopher, founder of utilitarianism
Since the observations of other individuals concerning the same system (company or community) might widely differ from those who want to become the champions of change, it is of high significance to understand their positions. More often when change advocates face opposition, it is rooted in the fear of letting go of the known concepts. Most humans are not aware that their concepts do not represent reality.
If an artist paints a landscape you will see his version of the observed scenery, while another artist will paint an image that leaves a completely different impression. A concept is like an image of something that might be long gone and we still cling to its memory, because it once gave us a feeling of security. While the environments change, we as humans often are afraid to face reality and cling to a past memory. This leads to suffering, because our idea of the world is contrary to its state. Most suffering in the human existence is bound to a non-acceptance of what is (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now).
Being a champion of change means to recognize this fear in others, show them a healthy alternative to the memory they cling to (memories are often adaptation strategies that are obsolete).Acknowledging fear and not belittling it, while giving perspective and making people aware of the danger of clinging on to concepts to tightly, could make the difference in a successful change attempt.When change is on the way, the ones who were clinging to old concepts might also be the ones who can become allies in solidifying a change after they have accepted its necessity.
Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.
– Eckhart Tolle