We don’t know what we don’t know. New space. New experience. New discomfort. That’s perhaps how some of the UK are feeling right now post the referendum and Brexit. Frustration prevails, except for those moments of clarity when it is realised that to move to acceptance is the only choice; so we can work with what is, heal all of our wounds (tangible, psychological, imagined and real), focus our collective energies to maximise our talents and build for a sustainable future.
It has struck me recently that my personal experiences seem to be mirroring each other, in terms of the emotional processing and behavioural management that’s required to move on through them.
I’m moving house, which according to popular research would have me believe is in the top 5 most stressful life experiences. This has demanded many things of me; an assessment of my life goals and direction, acceptance of an inner yearning for a ‘new space’, a preparedness to let go of the ‘old space’, exploration and assessment of new properties and then a heap of work to make the move happen – with the occasional emotional slippage where I have to remind myself of the benefits of the future place and start to get engaged with making some of these a reality.
For me sometimes, big decisions can feel tough. Calculated. And brave. What I do know about myself is once I’m there, there will be no looking back and I’ll ask myself why I didn’t do it sooner. Many of you will be familiar with the Kubler-Ross Change Curve (see below for a reminder), originally developed in the 1960s to help people understand the grieving process and used since in organisations to help managers and leaders understand the very human experience of change.
But that’s not the only change in my life. I’m also recovering from a major operation and wow, it’s been tough. Whilst the operation itself was brilliantly performed by a consultant with significant skill, integrity and presence – the whole recovery experience was daunting, drawn out (in my opinion, given I have a ‘hurry up’ driver) and debilitating. As someone who normally runs her life at 100 mph, to be forced to halt has been a shock. I’ve gone through a huge range of emotions: numbness, fear, frustration, anger, resignation, fear, upset and (thankfully) hope and gratitude. All have served as useful reminders of the very real process of human change. The subsequent re-emergence of self, returning to a slightly different ‘reality’ has left me feeling tentative yet braver, more questioning yet in some strange way a sense of being more worldy wise.
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Khalil Gibran
The difference is that moving home is self-induced change while my operation and recovery was forced upon me. The operation has also involved many more negative emotions than the first. Maybe there’s something here that’s a useful lesson for organisational life?
“Without involvement, there is no commitment. Mark it down, asterisk it, circle it, underline it. No involvement, no commitment” Stephen Covey (1989)
I can’t help thinking that in business and organisational environments, when major change occurs we’re potentially adding another metaphorical layer of skin on to the people. Something like 240 billion new cells are produced every day by the average body; is it beyond the realms of possibility that how someone is feeling will influence the ‘wellness’ of these cells? We have a choice: lead and manage it well and this new metaphorical layer will consist of positive energy, new ideas and greater confidence; lead and manage it poorly, then it will serve only to be yet another barrier between the organisation and the person consisting of fatigue, possible resistance and cynicism.
I find it amusing that despite the fact I’ve spent over 20 years helping individuals and teams in business through numerous change programmes, I somehow expect myself to be emotionally detached from my own change processes, just because I know how it’s meant to work. When I realise that I’m ‘going through the curve’ – I get frustrated because I think I should have skipped through it already. I’m reminded of a change management training programme we ran for a large retailer a few years ago. Thankfully the client understood that the organisation’s own leaders had to accept and understand the change ahead – and wanted us to help them deal with it before we then got in to how they were going to help their own teams through this challenging period. Leaders are, after all, humans too! This level of thinking certainly wasn’t present in my early career and all too often managers were expected to get on with delivering change without any time or space for them to process it first themselves.
The changes in my life have been a useful source of reflection, but they are personal to me. In the past couple of weeks, though, everyone in the UK has had a taste of the emotions and behaviours that radical change elicit, in the form of Brexit. I’m not going to pass comment on the referendum result, but I would like to talk about the behavioural patterns I’ve seen in our nation during these challenging weeks. Personally, Brexit has so far elicited for me; shock, calm, frustration, anger, hope and anxiety. I found myself frantically seeking out information from all kinds of ‘experts’ and ‘commentators’. But now I’m looking forward to a positive exploration of a new future. More widely, I’ve seen a torrid, toxic affair full of warped intensive communications and hidden agendas, a nation rife with emotion, blame, anger, resignation and in some cases, happiness. We’re now starting to pick ourselves up and face this new reality. But has the experience left people feeling full of positive energy, new ideas and greater confidence? I think we can safely say, not yet! This is now the task of leaders, both political and organisational, across our country.
Brexit has been a reminder for all of us of what it feels like to go through change. We shouldn’t waste it – instead, think about what we can do to make change easier on people and more effective for the organisations we lead.
“All highly successful transformation efforts combine good leadership with good management” (Kotter 2012, p134).
Quick Tips for Supporting People Through Change
• Recognise the human impact of the change process and manage people well at different stages of it
• Listen – actively
• Show and demonstrate concern
• Build support networks
• Provide safety and clarity of expectations
• Give space to express themselves privately
• Ensure the facts are clear and heard
• Help identify what they are holding on to and why
• Help explore ways to adapt to their new situations
• Communicate – communicate – communicate (remember – 7 times, in 7 different ways)
• Ask questions
• Coach them to help them visualise the new future
• Help them set goals
• Harness their enthusiasm
• Involve them in creating the new future.