Change can feel like a “Monster Boat” ride.
A little while back, my family and I took a ride on a Monster Boat on the east coast of North Carolina. It’s one of those super fast boats that skips and skims across the ocean – our boat had a huge, scary shark painted on the side which should have been a clue for me but we saw a lot of wet, laughing people exiting the boat. So on a whim we bought our tickets.
We stepped onto the Monster Boat and strategically chose our seats hoping to stay dry. As the boat left the dock and picked up speed, it became inescapably clear that this was not going to feel like a joy ride.
I was taken by surprise when our boat purposefully dove into a wave which created a huge boat-soaking splash. We were drenched from the first dive. As my makeup ran down my face, I realized that this wasn't going to stop. We continued to dive and speed for another 45 minutes which was fun at first. We laughed and shook our heads. But as time went on, the collective mood on the boat changed. Some stared at their feet; others determinedly locked on the horizon hoping to prevent seasickness. You could see people's emotions switching from enthusiasm to shock, disbelief and then to acceptance, hope and, eventually, enthusiasm. We all looked like we had showered with our clothes on but like the people before us, we were smiling when we left the boat.
The Two Faces of Change
There are two faces of change. There's the up side which argues that change is good and inevitable; that inviting and embracing change is critical to survival. Change invites growth and allows for expansion. Product or service innovation is a good example of this type of change. Using an alternative water analogy, some say that change is like steering a sailboat. A sailboat must typically sail against the wind. The challenge is to reposition the sails in order to harness the wind. If done well, the boat will sail faster than the wind itself – even though the gusts are opposing it. Applying this to organizational life - leaders can choose to adjust their sails and use the wind gusts to gain momentum. (The analogy is inspired by Nancy Duarte in her book Resonate.) I love this analogy and will continue to use it when I talk about change.
The Monster Boat represents the other face of change. Change can be invigorating and exciting but sometimes it feels more like it is something being done to us rather than by us. Personnel changes, cutbacks and reorganizations are a few examples. Under these circumstances, change can feel challenging, relentless and tiring. It may make us feel uncomfortable and even queasy. Like the Monster Boat experience, it can feel like buckets of bone-chilling water are being dumped on our heads. We stare fixedly at the horizon and wonder if we have any control over the situation.
It is natural to have mixed feelings about change - and it important to acknowledge those feelings.
The Emotions of Change
Some of my favorite material on change comes from change management expert William Bridges. (I highly recommend the most recent edition of his best-selling book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change.) One of the reasons I love Bridges work is that it operationalizes the experience of change by discussing the emotions that accompany the change experience.
Bridges notes that every transition begins with an ending. In order to embrace change, we have to let go of the old (i.e., old ways of thinking, acting, and speaking). His Transition Scale tracks the emotional progression we experience as we travel from from endings to new beginnings. Those emotions include: denial, shock, anger, frustration, stress, ambivalence, skepticism, acceptance, importance, hope, and enthusiasm.
Letting go of the old and embracing a new beginning is a process that involves inviting, envisioning and articulating new ways of thinking, acting and speaking. Visioning conversations - or conversations of possibility - are critical for helping collectives move from one side of the spectrum to the other. (See "The Art of Possibility" by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander for an inspirational read on transformation).
Not surprisingly, the way in which change is introduced, communicated and managed is a critical determinant of individual/group perception of the experience. That's good news for leaders. Change well-managed can dramatically impact the lives of employees and impact productivity, engagement and morale. Well-facilitated conversations about change can create good will and help ease employees transition along the emotional scale to new beginnings. To help groups increase their readiness to embrace change, I have created an activity that utilizes Bridges' transition material. This activity has become a popular centerpiece of my work as a communications and organizational development specialist. Contact me for more information about this activity - I'd be happy to share it with you.
6 Tips for Managing Change
So what's a leader to do? Here are 6 tips for managing change that I have called the “AEIOU and Sometimes Why” Formula for negotiating the Monster Boat ride.
A - Acknowledge the experience of change.
Promote discussions about change. It is a complex process and it is important to acknowledge that sometimes change can feel like a monster boat ride. Let the people on the boat know what to expect. Laugh about it if you can. Work with your team to generate ideas to offer them meaningful assistance during change.
E - Express your authentic and positive vision for the change effort.
Communicate clearly and openly about change. Reiterate the “official” vision for the specific change effort. Talk about the positive outcomes. Tell the truth – good news and bad. Don’t tell them it’s going to be a joy ride if it’s not. As a leader, your vision, confidence and authenticity are key.
I – Inspire “change evangelists.”
Make it your objective to inspire “change evangelists.” Get them on board by facilitating activities and discussions that help them reconnect to the mission, purpose and core values of your organization. Let them know the reasons behind the change – and ask for their help in making it a success.
O – Oversee the people and the process.
Change happens over time. As a leader, it is important to oversee the people as well as the process. Change is more than an announcement – it’s a conversation. The people on the boat will be talking anyway – you may as well know what they are thinking. And they often have the answers if we listen. Continue to seek strategies for negotiating the waters with your team.
U - Uplift your team
Remember your responsibility to motivate the team in times of change. Engage in positive conversations about change - providing updates and giving feedback/encouragement. Celebrate wins and focus efforts on boosting morale. “Speed of the leader, speed of the gang” (source unknown).
WHY - Sometimes Why
WHY is always a great question to ask. Remember to strategically reassess how you are doing on the “people part” of the change process and make sure the people on the boat know the why behind the change.
Change can feel like a monster boat ride and, sometimes, it can take our breath away with the speed and surprise of it.
But change can also be a good thing - it ensures growth and can inspire innovation and new thinking. Remember that how people feel about change is a group-generated experience. As a leader you have the power to impact the change journey.
© Kathy Sturgis, Ph.D. Kathy is founder of Refreshment Zone and is an organizational and personal development specialist with a doctorate in communication. Contact Kathy@RefreshmentZone.com for more information on programs or services.