When you start a new job or move to a new location change will happen. As a traveling partner you will definitely experience change and sometimes you might even end up being the change manager of an entire family, making sure everybody get the information they need, transition well and settle happily in a new location. Understanding a few things about the dynamics of change might therefore come in handy.
A professional look at change
I have for a number of years worked as a strategic development consultant and been a driver in different projects of change including changes in governance models, change in team structure and even change in culture. Therefore my first introduction to change was from a professional perspective. But when it comes to change, even the professional perspective can become very personal.
When I first took an interest in the dynamics of change, the theories were mostly related to grief, stating that the emotions people go through in circumstances of change look very much like the emotional circle of people tackling bad news or grief. The circle of grief looks something like this: Chock and denial, anger and detachment, acceptance and negotiation, readjustment and recovery.
Later in my work life we started drawing change as the risky passage between two mountains and we discussed what would be more effective to drive change: Push strategies, pull strategies, or maybe the right combination of a burning platform combined with a vision for the future to lead the change process.
Along the way managing change has became a discipline of its own. A service that big consulting firms offer, 5 or 9 step models to follow and an industry with its own certified professionals. But basically, what it all comes down to for me is still trying to understand the human ability to accept and handle change.
The brains ability to cope with change
When you think about it, you realise that change is all around us. Some people even say, change is the only constant in our world today. It is a given and actually it has always been a given. We grow up, we move away from home, we change schools, we get new jobs, our jobs get re-organized, we lose people we love, people move in and out of our lives and sometimes we move to new locations. We experience changes in identity, social relations and location so many times in a lifetime that you should think handling it would be a natural ability for all humans. However, change managers still all seem to agree: We as humanbeings do not like change – change courses stress.
Apparently it is the brains fault. The brain doesn’t like uncertainty. Anything uncertain is potentially a threat. This is also why we say that bad news is better than no news. Not knowing what will come is just too much work for our brain. When the brain is confronted with uncertainty it will work hard to find certainty. Learning or during something new is also hard for the brain because it requires new connections, where as a habit can be run on autopilot and therefore takes less effort. The brain wants us to feel secure and comfortable, but it appears that the brain is also lazy, therefore it has a preference for what we already know, the connections we already made and the habits we already have.
But still, there seems to be more to the story. Why is it that some people just seem to handle change easier than others and some people even seem to be driven by a need for novelty and crave it to a point where staying in the same place or situation too long makes them unhappy?
When change becomes the habit
There is of course the reality that some changes we chose and control and others we don’t. Changes that other people throw at us are bound to be more difficult to cope with than the changes we plan for ourselves. But then there is also the approach we have to change. Some people seem very focused on things they lose as a consequence of change, while others have a better ability to look for the new opportunities that change can bring.
Psychologists will tell us, that there are many different things that can affect our ability to change, anxiety and our approach to risk-taking for example. How ridged we are in our understanding of what the world must look like also has an effect. When change happens in an area where we consider ourselves to be strong it also makes it easier to cope. And maybe it all comes down to past experiences. When we are trying to cope with change we depend on those cognitive links in the brain to help us through and make us think that we will be OK. But if we haven’t been there before, we just don’t know.
Some say that the ability to handle change is a muscle that can be trained to become stronger and more flexible. Maybe it is just that muscle you train as a traveling spouse and a family on the move – that is, if the move to a new location becomes a positive change that creates new and positive connections in your brain and can then be reused next time change is coming your way.
Tips to overcome stress caused by change
No matter if you are already the flexible change seeker or if you yourself or somebody in your family or social circles are struggling with barriers of change, these are a few tips to overcoming the stress that change can cause:
- Prepare: Help your brain cope with the unknown by looking into your options and make plans for how to transition into the new.
- Stay positive: Look for opportunities, what is to be gained when things change? If you believe that change is difficult and terrible, then you will probably have a difficult and terrible time.
- Find support: Don’t seek isolation when things become difficult, change becomes easier when you let other people know what is going on, both the worries you have and the hopes. Try to find support among people who will encourage you – positive people who can help you see the opportunities.
- Take action: Take responsibility for the change and start working your way through it. People who are good at managing change stop talking and start doing the big and small practical things that they themselves and the people around them need to get done to be able to settle happily in their new circumstances.
And also know, that even the most experienced change managers will have moments of doubt and uncertainty. Every change is a little different and they all take adjustment and time.
Mette Lindgaard Seligmann (DK) is a workshop facilitator and strategic communication consultant currently based in Cleveland.