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“Be the change you wish to see in the world,” said Gandhi, but how many of us have truly managed our own change process, in a totally transformative sense, before trying to change other things?  Relatively few of us, in reality.

The brain just doesn’t like change; it finds it challenging.  It prefers us to focus on old habits – far less taxing for it.  The brain relishes equilibrium, not problem solving and conscious thinking.  It’s happy when we are complacent and accepting of ‘what is’.  So, we often don’t put in the effort to make change happen. Yet, unless we do, we tread water.  As Einstein said, insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1960s ‘Change Curve’ model, looked at how terminally ill patients responded to news of their diagnosis.  This has since been widely applied to change management theory and suggests we move through various stages, when facing change.

The first is shock – a fear of what lies ahead – followed by denial, where we cling on to what we have done and known in the past, convincing ourselves it was all fine and reinvention is unnecessary. It’s the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.

Then we become angry and start to blame others for what is going on, compensating for our own self-doubt.  Low morale sets in and we can become isolated, depressed and disengaged.

At our own speed, we then move into an acceptance phase, becoming more optimistic about what’s happening and relieved it isn’t quite as bad as imagined.  We finally become quite impatient for change to be realised.  We drive the change.

Some of the best individual ‘transformations’ and personal success stories fit into this framework.  Robin Sharma once said, “Change is hard at first, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end.”  To test this theory, we focused on two celebrities who have changed their lives around – Gino D’Acampo and Jay Blades.  

Gino D’Acampo

Gino D’Acampo aged 19, headed to the UK from Italy, to seek work in restaurants.  It was reportedly hard; he found himself in a ‘terrible place’ and fell in with the wrong people.  Three years after arriving, he burgled the home of singer Paul Young, stealing a collection of guitars and other items. Caught out by DNA on discarded cigarette butts, he was prosecuted and sent to jail for two years.  It got ‘messy’.

Time inside was time to think.  He was forced past the ‘anger’ stage of being caught out and pushed into a phase in which he knew change was vital.  He spent his time planning an Italian ingredients’ import business.  He says he thought, “This is not going to drag me down; this is going to make me a better man.”  On release, he started to make the changes and transformed things, building a profile that gained the attention of publishers and TV producers.  The rest is history.  King of the Jungle in ‘I’m a Celebrity’ 2009, author of numerous cookbooks, TV show host and chef and owner of a number of restaurants; it happened.  Having got to where he had strived to be, he was finally able to write to Paul Young and ask for forgiveness.

Jay Blades 

Jay Blades, presenter of TV’s, The Repair Shop, left school unable to read or write, being told by his careers teacher he would “amount to nothing,” having been a troublesome pupil, often causing fights and getting nothing but U grades. 

Life after school involved homelessness,  unemployment and life on the streets.  Nevertheless, his skill in engaging the disadvantaged was spotted by hostel owners, who gave him work.  A sense of purpose developed and he became a brilliant mentor of young delinquent people.  Amazingly, despite still being illiterate, he gained a place on a university criminology course, having his landlady draft his acceptance letter and using voice recognition software to study.  Following graduation, he ran youth workshops for the police … until funding ran out.

Things then got messy.  He hit rock bottom and contemplated suicide. It ended with a week spent living in a car, mentally distressed and confused. It was only when a friend rescued him and gave him a job restoring furniture that real change began. Having tapped into his people skills and furniture restoration talents, he suddenly got a break.  He was asked to present The Repair Shop, despite being unable to read his scripts and too ashamed to admit to that for three years.  His auto-biography’s title, ‘Making It: How love, kindness and community helped me repair my life,” says it all.

The transformation process

These stories demonstrate that when our back is against the wall, we push ourselves through the change curve and do what we need to, in order to transform our future. That old adage of things having to get worse so they can get better, perhaps rings true. 

So what can a business learn from this?  In many ways, businesses have already been through the D’Acampo and Blades process.  Covid and lockdowns enforced change and closed the gaps between phases in the change curve.  Staff swiftly saw change was inevitable because it was all about survival.  Brains had no choice but to embrace new processes and ways of doing things. Teams just had to work from home, adopt IT solutions, create new products and evolve their services.  Change acceptance was swift.

But now things are more normal. Leaders must consider how to encourage their team members to embrace change, without necessarily having the ‘do or die’ factor to assist them.  Leaders must recognise that every change puts their employees’ brains through the change curve and that individual responses are all differently paced.  Each employee has to be allowed to process news of change in their terms and through their own lens. 

In the initial phase – let’s call it the burglary, fighting and sleeping rough stage – leaders must let employees do the hard yards in their heads, moan, groan, throw a few metaphorical punches and vent.  They can then step in and assist their next steps, being the equivalent of the friends coming to the rescue and the landlady who drafted the acceptance letter.  

Listening and coaching are key skills. Strong leadership is the excitement generator that encourages employees to join you on the journey to change acceptance and onward to the ‘why didn’t we do this sooner’ destination.  Feedback, ideas and suggestions need to be elicited; problem solving must become a shared joy, not a brain-taxing chore. You must be the opportunity provider and the serendipity bringer within the D’Acampo and Blades stories.

Having the skills to engage with staff, hear their concerns and address them in an uplifting and positive manner is key. Most  staff are not focused on self-transformation.  You need to focus on the changes you seek and make the benefits personal and relevant to each member of your team, building a ‘community’ behind your change strategy.

Once enthusiasm for change has been achieved, employees will look back on what was and view it in a different light, having reached a better place, with your help.  It’s a place that our celebs reached, when they wrote that letter asking for forgiveness and made that confession of being unable to read.  It’s the satisfying high ground reached following transformation.  If you need help in reaching it, we’re here to assist.