Leading through the challenge of change
I am experiencing a change in my life; I am thinking of moving house. Despite it being just a house move it feels difficult to accept and contend with. Even as I write this, it seems rather pathetic when I think about, for example, the sort of life change experienced by someone who has lost a loved one. This illustrates that even less significant changes in our lives can feel difficult and tortuous. So why do we sometimes feel overwhelmed and stressed during times of change such as a change in job, career or house move and what strategies can we use to cope with it?
Much has been written about change and one of my favourite reads is William Bridges’ book ‘Transitions: Making sense of Life’s changes’. First written in 1979 and re-written in 2014, it continues to resonate with our contemporary deliberations about change. He explains how our experience of change requires us to move through three different phases. First, there is an ending to something. This is followed by a period of confusion and distress (which I call the messy middle), and finally there is a new beginning.
There are a couple of important observations I have made about change. Like it or not (and usually we don’t like it), change happens all the time, all around us and it is relentless. So, in order to live happy healthy lives, we must learn to adapt and enjoy the challenge of change as well as the end result. Good leaders know this and intentionally choose to spend large chunks of their time on supporting people through relentless and inevitable organisation changes. My second insight is that change is perpetual, it never actually ceases, it is a cyclical phenomenon that spirals us in to a new place whilst closing the door on an old place.
The three phases described by Bridges make great sense to me. I believe that the leader’s role is to help people move through all three phases to a new future state. This must start with genuine empathy and understanding, acknowledging that change is hard. The leadership responsibility is then to recognise where people are in the change cycle. One way to do this is to spend time openly exploring, with those going through the change, what the potential losses and gains might be. The final part involves helping people to figure out what they need to do to positively accept the change and embrace the new state.
With regard to my house move, I think that I am in the middle phase. I have already recognised that my ‘ending’ is concerned with the potential loss of friends, favourite restaurants, coffee shops, and my tennis club. In my ‘messy middle phase’ I’m learning to come to terms with this. I am doing this by focusing on my new beginning (the good bit) which will bring a new home that is more suited to my life-style as well as the opportunity to find new friends, coffee shops and tennis challenges!
So now I’m asking you. Whether you are leading it or enduring it, where are you with regard to your latest change? Can you spot which of Bridges’ phases you are in? And, more importantly, can you visualise what new and exciting opportunities are on your horizon?