Think of the last time your boss, your boss's boss or an HR person told you that a change was coming – some new way to do something, or a restructuring, or a new system to learn.
If you’re like most people, your first reaction was probably more negative than positive. Perhaps something like: "Arrgh, as if the past eighteen months haven’t been stressful enough…" – along with a sinking feeling and a sense of being newly overwhelmed.
Why is the idea of change – especially change imposed upon us – so often unwelcome? Given the past few years of massive change and disruption on so many levels, you’d think we would have gotten used to non-stop personal and professional change by now.
Our Anti-Change Wiring
Blame our experience as a species. For most of human history, change has been dangerous; the safest course of action has generally been 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.
Over many thousands of years, this has resulted in most people seeing most change as a threat. But today, to be successful, we often have to make changes in how we work, who we work with, and how we deal with customers.
So, what’s a human to do? Try these five things:
1. Find out more
When an unexpected change comes at us, we often just shut down and stop listening after the word "different." But there’s some key information about any change that will help you decide how best to respond. First, ask for more clarity about what the change is – what it means for you, practically. Then ask why it’s happening, so you get some sense of possible benefits. Finally, ask the person promoting the change what the post-change future will look like – how it will affect the business, the customers, the employees. Having this key information can make the change start to seem less overwhelming and more understandable.
2. Difficult to doable
Most often, when we first hear about a change, we assume it’s going to be difficult – that we won’t know how to do it, or that others will make it hard to do. Instead, turn your mind toward how you could make it easier. Is there someone who already knows how to do what you’re being asked to do, who could help you? Is there training available? Can you talk to your boss about what it will take?
3. Costly to rewarding
We also tend to think that a change is going to take away more than it gives us: that learning how to do it will take time we can’t spare or that it will hurt our reputation – that we’ll look bad trying to do something we’re not used to doing. The change will seem less daunting if you can also focus on how it might be rewarding: maybe the new way of doing things will take less time, once you’ve learned it, or will solve a problem that you know customers have been complaining about.
4. Weird to normal
One of the worst things about change is that the new way of doing things just feels weird. Anyone who’s ever had to learn to drive a stick shift as an adult, for instance, or gone to a religious celebration of another faith, knows that feeling of "this just isn’t what I’m used to."
Making a change feel normal is an important way to get past our hesitation, and sometimes the quickest way to do that is to find someone you like and respect who understands and is doing things in the new way and ask them to share with you what feels OK about it to them.
5. Practice makes perfect … or at Least OK
And finally, perhaps, the most important way to get comfortable with a new way of doing things or thinking about things is to do it. And then do it again.
If you think about anything you’ve learned as an adult – from swing dancing to speaking another language, to using a new social media platform – you probably remember the day when you had practiced enough that you suddenly thought, "Oh, this isn’t so hard." Once you’ve gotten some basic information about the change and started to look for ways it could be easy (or at least doable), rewarding and normal, take a deep breath and just jump into trying it out.
Every indication is that the pace of change in our lives and in the world is going to continue to increase. It doesn’t look like we’re ever going to return to a time when everything is mostly status quo. Having the ability to accept and respond well to necessary change is going to become more important with every passing day.
Therefore, I invite you to rewire yourself in this way: to learn to think and feel differently about change; to become change-capable. It’s your best path to a successful, satisfying personal and professional life in this era of non-stop change.
Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a coaching, consulting and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. In addition to her latest book, Change from the Inside Out, she is the author of four previous best-selling books: Be Bad First, Leading So People Will Follow, Being Strategic and Growing Great Employees; a popular leadership blogger at Forbes.com; and the creator and host of the Proteus Leader Show, a regular podcast that offers quick, practical support for leaders and managers. You can connect with Erika on LinkedIn or Twitter.