Organizational Change

comfort zones are so… comfortable

Us humans can talk about pushing boundaries, thinking outside the box, or getting outside of comfort zones all we want. Deep down we know that there is no growth, development, change, or improvement without discomfort. But we hate that. We really do. We want to believe the marketing hype that says change and improvement is easy and effortless and fun.

Picture a cold, wet, stormy winter night and you’re snuggled in a soft, plush, fleecy blanket by the fire while drinking hot chocolate and watching your favorite movie. That’s your comfort zone – it’s all warm, cozy, and oh so gloriously relaxing.

Now, picture that same winter night and your spouse comes into the room and inexplicably yanks the blanket off, turns on all the fans and A/C, and changes the channel. THAT’S what stretching your comfort zone feels like. Not life threatening, just really, really irritating. And we want to fix it immediately and return to our blissful cocoon.

Deep down inside the lizard brain we’re wired to avoid discomfort. It’s a survival trait that goes to the roots of our existence. Hypothermia, starvation, and injury are kind of a big deal when you’re 75,000 years from the nearest heated house, stocked fridge, and health clinic. Pain is a fabulous instructor because it teaches us to not do things that might result in injury, dismemberment, or death.

The problem is, we’re also wired to survive one more day. Our lizard brain only worries about right now, not 20 years out. The mechanisms that keep us from freezing or starving to death don’t work well to protect us from the long term dangers brought about by sloth, overconsumption, or NOT changing with the world. Our bodies are great at telling us to eat, but not so good at telling us to back off; great at teaching us not to stick our hands in the fire, but lousy at encouraging us to seek out new skills, knowledge, and people.

Related to all this, us humans also hate, hate, hate to be denied something we want. It becomes a tickle in the brain that we’re soon obsessing over until we HAVE TO HAVE IT!!!! Again, it’s a great survival trait when our bodies are trying to get us to go hunt something so we can eat for another day, but counterproductive when we’re trying to create long term behavioral change like eating less, saving more, getting up earlier, learning new skills, etc.

The longer we stay in our comfort zone, the more it starts to shrink. We step back from the edge to provide a cushion of comfort and the edge moves inward. So we step back again. Pretty soon we find we’ve trapped ourselves in a very small, very tiny, very restrictive place. And we wonder why our lives and careers aren’t where we want them.

Worse, yet. When faced with danger – physical, emotional, mental – we retreat to what we know. The more uncertain the situation, the more dogmatically and desperately we cling to the things we are certain about. Ironically, the moments we need to change the most are the moments we are most resistant to change.

All of this has huge implications for leading change, training and development, and personal and professional growth. It’s not that we can’t or won’t push on those self-imposed boundaries, it’s just that we’re highly resistant to discomfort.

How often do we put off the diet or fitness or savings plans until “tomorrow”? How often do we delay going back to school or seeking out new training until “the time is right”? How often do we dangerously delay important decisions until we “have more information”? How often do we dismiss new approaches out of hand, preferring to stick to “tried and true” and “best practices”?

What thinks you?

 

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not another post on change

Change has been on my mind lately. Judging by recent posts from other bloggers, I’m not alone. Change is everywhere, every day, always happening, yet handling and managing change is a persistent issue.

Connie Podesta jokes that she has a four-word workshop to help people in organizations through periods of difficult change. Here it is in its entirety: “Change. Deal with it.” Funny and true in the sense that there will always be change so we might as well just get on with our lives.

Perhaps change isn’t the real issue, though. What if it’s the uncertainty of the situation? The Holmes-Rahe Scale rates life changes on a scale of 1 – 100 in terms of the amount of stress (or “life crisis units) caused. Interestingly, many of the events are differentiated based the size of change and not on whether it’s perceived as good or bad. That is, “major business readjustment” is the same amount of stress whether you’re benefiting or not. Same for “major change in responsibilities at work”. Same for “change in work hours or conditions”. Same for “major change in living conditions”. In fact, “taking on a significant mortgage” is listed as slightly more stressful than “foreclosure of mortgage or loan”. Good or bad doesn’t seem to enter into it as much as how significant the event is.

The more significant the event, the less certain we are about how it’s going to turn out, and the more we worry about the change. Changing offices is probably not a big deal. But a big promotion pushing us beyond our comfort zone really is. So is discovering you’re now in a completely different section of the org chart.

Consider this: the people initiating change have often been thinking and debating changes for weeks or months. They’ve processed the advantages and disadvantages and understand the whys and needs inside and out. Then it all too often gets foisted on the rest of the organization and everyone is expected to fully and immediately support the changes.

None of this is to say “don’t change”. Change needs to happen, but change is never without cost or challenges. Jon Bartlett urges us to consider the real human cost to change. People are not cogs or Lego blocks that can be removed, moved around, tossed aside, or recombined instantly and without effect. Even when change is good, even when necessary, us humans need time.

We talk about managing change, but how different would things be if leaders concentrated on managing uncertainty instead of change? The change would still be there, but I suspect we’d start focusing more on communication. We’d involve people sooner, explain the whys and hows, give them time to process and ask questions, and provide clear and consistent (and accurate and true) messages throughout. We’d make sure people knew where they stood and what to expect. We all know how important it is for US to know what’s going on, yet so often don’t do a good job of communicating to OTHERS. Robin Schooling recently explained this so well when she described the ONLY excuse for poor internal communication (hint: you don’t care about the impact).

Why does all this matter? Why can’t we simply expect employees to be adults and deal with change? One reason: the most talented people always have options. People with options don’t have to suffer poor treatment, half-thought through plans, or command and control temper tantrums. Whit at HR Hardball said it well: “Strong swimmers are the first to jump ship.

 

control freakout

Times of great change (now), times of uncertainty (now), and times when yesterday’s formula for success is tomorrow’s expressway to failure (now) cause us humans to feel out of control, insecure, and stressed. It’s hard to know what to do next or move forward with certainty in a world where there aren’t templates and formulas; where you can’t get to where you want to go by just checking the boxes along the way; where the new maps haven’t been created yet.

Disruption is what is. The music, book publishing, and movie industries have changed in ways barely imaginable less than five years ago. Stable, conservative, aeon old industries with long histories are being taken to their foundations, blown up, and rebuilt in amazing ways – even if the practitioners don’t realize it yet. My humble, supersecret prediction is that the industries that have changed the least in the last 50 years will change the most in the next five. The FutureNow is here.

When your business is caught in the maelstrom of change you can choose one of three paths: 1) focus on what you can control; 2) focus on what you can influence; or 3) become the disruptor that creates the change others have to deal with.

The third path is really hard to do because there is a very, very fine line between being the company that goes against the grain and changes the industry and the company that goes against the grain and becomes irrelevant. I really want to focus on the first two choices.

In the past, industries drove change and the pace of change. Now, the ability to access and transmit information faster and faster and cheaper and cheaper means technology, customer demands, and off the radar upstarts are fueling change. There is less and less that we can actually control and more and more we can only influence. I assume it’s like sailing – we can’t control the waves or the wind, only anticipate and ride them. In fact, the more we try to control, the more out of control we get. Paradoxically, the more we go with the flow and focus on influence, the more control we actually have.

But us humans really like to feel in control. We like the feeling of security and certainty that control brings. If we can control it, we can prevent it from harming us. So, in a time of change (read as: time of FEAR) it’s tempting to concentrate on the unimportant things we can control instead of the big, important, and uncertain things we can only influence. Caught in the storm of change we seem to focus on polishing the ship’s brass and mopping the deck rather than anticipating the wind and the waves. Cleaning the ship is completely within our control and makes us feel successful right now, but the ship is adrift and about to sink. The painful paradox is that the more out of control we feel, the more we often try to control, which means we focus more and more on things that matter less and less. It’s an ugly downward spiral

Here are a  few simple questions to help determine whether your company is trying its hardest to influence a new path through the storm or headed for the rocks with the cleanest ship around:

Are you spending your time on principles and experimentation or policy and tradition?

Are you most concerned with finding ways to delight customers or ways to minimize change and disruption?

Are your most passionate and creative people at the helm, relishing the challenge or are they preparing their life rafts while you hand out mops and tins of polish?

There are no guarantees to success and every path is uncertain, but there are no awards for having the cleanest ship at the bottom of the ocean.

Your thoughts?