Change is happening everywhere, all the time. In fact, sayings like “the only constant in life is change” have become queen of clichés. We are so steeped in the everyday kind change, we don’t think too much about it.
In our personal lives, we tend to make unconscious adaptations to small changes on the spot. Alternatively, we barrel through, getting by until a really big change knocks us off our feet.
On the organizational level, things go pretty much the same. Adjustments and goals are made on micro and macro levels with plans laid out to varying degrees.
Things work well enough, until they don’t. Or until an organization gets interested enough in the kind of internal improvements needed to optimize performance and competitive edge.
The thing is, organizational change relies on human change. And that’s because organizations don’t change, the people within them do.
Mapping out the process of change on an organizational level is one thing, helping humans adapt to change is another.
It sounds sticky, and it can be.
Fortunately, evidence-based tools and practices from the field of neuroscience have enriched our understanding of human behavior and helped shift the paradigm of change management within organizations.
Change management is a brain game.
The human brain is a prediction machine: it seeks to organize and make meaning of what’s happening to and around us every waking minute of every day.
When change, or something new and unexpected occurs, a natural period of ambiguity follows. Our ability to productively take action is diminished while our brains try to make sense of the change and orient around a new reality.
Change also triggers emotions that may pose a threat to self-esteem, purpose, autonomy, certainty, equity, and social connection.
This may seem like soft science that doesn’t belong in the board room, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The human response to change determines how fast an organization not only adapts, but is able to thrive and innovate in the face of change.
Whether an organization is reacting to an imposed change or driving change from within, success starts and ends with its people.
Moving through the neutral zone.
William Bridges, organizational consultant and author of the book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, illustrates the human response to change in a 3-stage model.
Stage 1: Endings – loss, letting go, getting closure, saying goodbye
Stage 2: Neutral Zone – in-between time, chaos, instability, awkward middle
Stage 3: New Beginnings – reorientation, being “with” it, the new chapter, renewal
The challenge organizations face is in moving to New Beginnings as effectively as possible without bypassing key learnings of the Neutral Zone. Moving through, not around, the uncomfortable period of ambiguity and helping individuals integrate change in productive, meaningful ways.
Similar to the stages of grief, the process doesn’t look the same for everyone. Perhaps most importantly, it takes time.
This is why change management can be messier than we want it to be, and not necessarily predictable in terms of business plans and process evaluations.
But, paying attention to the process pays off.
Organizations that embrace this human model of change management are leading the pack, planning and leading change with resilience that results in sustainable success.
My own story of change.
Probably just like you, I’ve spent most of my adult life adapting to change without thinking much about it.
Building my corporate career: bam, adapt.
Starting my own business: bam, adapt.
Raising my kids through all the crazy phases and stages: bam, adapt.
It all seemed natural and easy.
Then the real change hit. Eight years ago, my son died suddenly. Then two years ago, my business partner and I split.
Although the losses were very different, in each case I felt like I was walking on an entirely new planet. For a long while, nothing felt the same.
At various points, I tried to force a shift. I tried to do what I’d always done: make something happen or move on.
As much as I wanted to move into something new, I was stuck in the neutral zone. Once I accepted where I was, I started learning from it.
I gave myself an all-new level of patience and space for reflection.
I reassessed my values and goals and allowed myself to experiment. I dove deep into the neuroscience around change to support my own process and curiosity, and ended up finding new inspiration for my work. When the time was right, I went deeper with my study of organizational change so I could engage with clients more meaningfully.
Because I understood the process and gave it the proper space and time, one thing led to another. I got through the neutral zone, and on to a natural new beginning.
It sure wasn’t easy, but I now know what embodying change management truly means. It created a new focus for my business and way of life, and I’m grateful for that.
Do you have your own story about navigating change? We want to hear! Please share in the comments below.