Change as Battle or Bridge; The Choice is Yours

All too often I observe people trying to lead significant change—in people, and in organizations—by arguing, cajoling and sometimes trying to shame people into doing things differently. These tactics are excellent for creating defensive reactions and turning change into a battle to be won or lost, rather than a possibility to be embraced. Once change becomes a battle, everyone loses.

It’s helpful to think of major change as being more like a bridge that provides safe passage from one place to another. Getting people to willingly cross the bridge of change requires three major things:

First, people need to become aware that staying where they are isn’t a viable option in the long run.

The Goldilocks principle of “not too hot, not too cold” applies here. If you frighten people too much they become overwhelmed and shut down. If they aren’t aware of the possible negative consequences of the status quo, there’s no motivation to change. Using credible examples that reveal the current and likely impending limitations of the current reality is often enough to wake people up to changes in their environment without startling them too much. Essentially the message is, “Your/our situation isn’t working as well as you think it is, and there is mounting evidence that it’s going to get worse. There are better options. Let’s explore them.”

Next, paint the picture of a destination that is worthwhile traveling to.

Again, the Goldilocks principle applies. Too rosy or fuzzy and people aren’t going to buy it. Too bleak and dire and people would rather risk staying where they are, thank you very much. Describe plausible possibilities of what can be created, and why those outcomes are of real, meaningful value, and people get interested. The key is emotional resonance. The change has to sound—and feel— real and inviting.

Lastly, people need to believe that if they step onto the bridge and risk embracing change that they have a very good chance of successfully getting to the other side.

It’s important to equip people before they start out with the skills they will need to address their own fears and concerns—and those of their traveling companions. Otherwise, fear takes hold and people turn back to the “safety” of what they know, rather than forging ahead to a new reality. Engraining coaching skills in your organization is one of the best ways to equip your people to successfully deal with the inevitable bouts of fear and doubt that significant change evokes.

Envisioning what’s possible is just the first step in leading change. Inviting people to join you in the process of co-creating what comes next is often the bigger, and more transformational challenge; one that will likely require you to go through your own metamorphosis, possibly evolving into a different kind of leader—and person.

That’s one of the unwritten truths of leading change. If you’re not changing, it’s likely no one else is either. If it feels like you’re in a battle with the change effort you’re leading ask yourself, “Is there a personal bridge I need to cross to do the work I’m drawn to do?” Envision who and what you want, and perhaps need, to become. Then take the first step, and let the change process change you into the kind of leader who inspires others to change their world.

Dianna Anderson, MCC
CEO, Cylient

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