By Julie Benezet:

There was a time when few of us would have even thought of meeting on Zoom, or anything like it. Why in the world would we want to spend hours online trying to carry on meaningful conversations while staring at strangely lit faces, domestic backdrops and random pets?

Then along came the pandemic and we had to make peace with video calls, warts and all, grateful for a means to connect with others. Better yet, we could achieve that without having to dress up, wear shoes or leave our homes. For many, it also triggered a new relationship with change.

What Covid Taught Us About Change

As anyone in the change management field will tell you, most people hate change. Adapting to video calls is just one example. When the pandemic arrived, threatening not only their health but the health of others, workers had to face head-on many unwelcome and stressful adjustments in the way they worked, cared for their families and communicated with people outside their homes.

With no way to opt out, people learned that change was not only survivable but could lead to better things. Until the global health crisis, few companies supported regular workdays outside the office. Once workers experienced the positive effects of being home based, they insisted on that option post Covid. Their demand forced many employers to modify their work requirements to include a hybrid model of at-home and in-office work in order to retain staff.

Daring to Dream

Living through the change to at-home work sparked an even greater impact. Away from the distraction of office life, people dared to dream. Before Covid, ideas such as taking on a new role in a company, changing the company culture to embrace wholistic health programs or leaving the workforce entirely seemed impossible. Armed with the experience of change imposed by the global health crisis, pursuing a new direction became a viable alternative to a flatlining career.

The Power of Inertia

There is the idea and then there is the reality. As alluring as the concept of realizing a dream is, the biggest challenge is launching the process. Resistance to change is rooted in human psychology and neurobiology. How it shows up in individual behavior varies, but the result is the same. Unless a person recognizes and creates a deliberate plan to overcome inertia, they will remain stuck at the starting line despite feeling miserable.

A change conversation. A group of women professionals met to talk about their relationship with change. The conversation began with the power of inertia. Their comments surfaced several common themes of change avoidance:

Denial and withdrawal: “I didn’t know where I was in my career. Two years ago, I withdrew from even thinking about it. I was miserable, but I had no one to blame but myself. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it.”

Fear of an unknown future: “I was afraid to leave my company and land in some place that might turn out not to align with my values. So, I just stayed where I was, despite feeling unhappy.”

Lack of Control: “I hate change because of lack of control. I like the idea of dealing with things inside the box (referring to a system used by former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns), which contains the things I know how to do something about, and leaving outside the box things I don’t.”

Defensive behavior: “I can deal with change dictated by others, but I’m afraid of self-motivated changes because of the unknown. I’m a perfectionist and if I don’t have everything figured out ahead of time, I avoid changes.”

Fear of loss: “I am very rule bound. As a COO, it works for me. It feels different when I think about creating a retirement plan. That change gives me a fear of loss, because I have to separate my needs from the needs of others. That’s a big change for me.”

Each person had a different reason for avoiding change despite their interest in doing something different. What they had in common was their reluctance to swing into action.

Six Ideas for Moving from Stuck to Start:

To break inertia and launch a journey of change, here are six ideas to keep in mind:

1. Say out loud what you want: Admit you want something new and better for yourself. As a change conversation participant said, “To finally say out loud that I needed to make a change was emboldening.” It freed up the energy she had consumed denying her feelings. Further, it inspired her to share her desire with friends and colleagues. They responded with support and questions on how she might achieve her new goal, adding momentum to her mission.

2. Separate fact from fiction: Before you try out a new idea, the future can look like a big black box with the word “SCARY” stamped on it. Across your mind parades a list of possible negative consequences: ridicule, injury to your reputation, undercutting by competitive peers, loss of your job or pressure to sustain any success you achieve. The mere thought of such things can feel so threatening that no amount of unhappiness will persuade you to shake loose of it and try something that could have such serious downsides.

Imagination is a wonderful thing, except when it conjures up frightening scenarios that might not have any basis in fact. When it does, it’s time to don your detective hat and seek actual information.

The road to new ideas is paved in unknowns, many of which initially appear to be things you can’t solve, much less control. However, if you don’t confront those possibilities, you won’t know what to do. Learning what your target population wants will point you in the direction of an idea to meet their interests and achieve your goal. It also will calm your anxiety.

In the words of a change conversation participant, “I was feeling disengaged and withdrawn. I was not in agreement with the vision and strategy of my company, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Finally, I started to work through what I knew about my situation and what I didn’t know but needed to learn. I went out and asked lots of questions. The more I learned about what people really thought, the more I felt empowered rather than scared, because I knew what I needed to do.”

3. Get ready for awkward conversations: There is a reason why your idea for change might not be greeted with open arms. Most likely, underlying it is an organizational challenge that people would prefer to ignore.

When asking uncomfortable questions of people whose information, advice or vote you need, you might encounter resistance in a variety of forms—pushback, silence or flabby excuses to escape the conversation (“Um, I can’t deal with this now. I’m already late for another meeting.”). Nevertheless, the success of your new idea depends upon those people.

Getting past the awkwardness of the situation requires taking behavioral risks. Do your homework ahead of time. Research their history with your issue, personal motivators and communication style. Then grit your teeth and go.

Aside from obtaining answers, you also might improve your communication skills.  “I realized I don’t take enough behavioral risks. I want to change, but to do so, I have to learn to empathize with those who don’t,” said one change conversation participant. She set on a course to listen harder and better understand other points of view.

4. Get out of your way: The woman who described her struggle with perfectionism is far from alone. Her struggle to elude failure by doing nothing until every piece was in place prevented her from seeking a promotion.

Everyone engages in defensive behaviors (micromanagement, personalizing and conflict avoidance, to name a few).  They provide short term relief to calm the fear of trying something new. However, they will throw you off the road to something better. When something triggers you and raises your defenses, pay attention. Pause, take a deep breath, and spend time reflecting on your situation from a less emotional place. Then create a better strategy. Consider asking a trusted sounding board to help you work through your thinking process.

5. Accept that with change comes loss: When you create something new, something old goes away. The COO who had focused her career on serving others had to reckon with the prospect of losing her popularity and importance if she put her needs first.

She finally broke free of the need to please others when she homed in on what made her happy outside of work: her motorcycle. She loved to spend her weekends riding it through the countryside, veering around turns and exploring side roads to see what she’d find. The freedom energized her, opening new horizons, literally and figuratively.

Those feelings gave her courage to confront the loss that comes with change. Placing the needs of others ahead of hers was appropriate in her leadership role, but not for starting another chapter. With that insight, she was able to grieve the loss of attributes she loved in her executive role and create a retirement plan.

6. Keep your eye on the prize: The road to change is curvy with lots of bumps and potholes. You will often get lost or find yourself with a flat tire. Focus on an image of where you want to arrive and let it propel you. Remember it during your journey as you continue to seek feedback from your target audience to course correct and reach your goal.

Taking Charge of Change

No one ever said making a change was easy, but without trying, you could miss an exciting opportunity. When the motorcycle riding COO broke free of inertia and launched her long overdue retirement, she arrived at a new and fulfilling destination. It was well worth the adventure of traveling there. That is the gift of taking charge of change.

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