My family moved a lot when I was growing up, so I spent a lot of time learning how to adjust to new things, new places, and new people. I thought I was really good at handling change. Then, I had a difficult time deciding where to go to college. I had a tough time making any decision, for that matter. This new feeling of uncertainty was uncomfortable. The one thing I did know for certain? I didn’t like being uncomfortable.
When I shared my confusion with my mom, she laughed and then said, “Honey, you have NEVER been good at change. What you got good at was figuring out how to control your relationship to the change. Other people were preparing you and telling you the change was coming. You weren’t leading the change; you were riding along.”
Riding along. I have carried those words with me ever since. My relationship to change had always been to try to find a way to control my reaction to it.
Ever since that a-ha moment during the conversation with my mom, I’ve been fascinated not only with my relationship to change, but also with how to help others successfully navigate it. So, it makes sense that I’ve made a career out of advising leadership teams on how to approach change management.
But, what about the employees who are along for the ride?
Bottom-up vs. top-down change management
In my last blog post, I shared some tried-and-true tips for effective change management. When you’re undergoing a big, transformational change, this top-down textbook approach is solid. If you’re not in a leadership position, though, you’re not trying to figure out how to drive change. You’re trying to figure out how to control your relationship to change.
When we talk about change management, we don’t always spend a lot of time talking to or coaching those feeling the actual impacts of the change. Because, let’s face it: leaders don’t often feel the impact of the change. They may think about that area of the business differently, or adjust the way they measure KPIs, but the actual change usually doesn’t affect their day to day.
When undergoing digital transformation on a large scale, the management team and project leads often face some level of resistance from others across the organization — not necessarily because they don’t support the initiative, but because change in general makes some people very uncomfortable.
What makes someone more adaptable than someone else?
Throughout the years, I’ve noticed that the process of change management is easier for some people than others. And for some people, it’s extremely difficult. Why are some of us better at being able to adapt, while for others, it absolutely upends them?
There are two kinds of people in every workplace: those who live at risk and those who live at stake.
Those who live at stake never feel a high threat level. They’re the inquisitive ones. They seek out experts, ask for help, and actively listen. They’re confident in what they know, and not worried about what they don’t know. They’re collaborators who aren’t driven by positive affirmation.
Those who live at risk operate from learned stress behaviors, and their threat level is through the roof. They’re often unsure of themselves and their knowledge base, but are afraid that asking questions will show weakness. They prefer to work alone or be the leading expert on a project. Many developed these bad habits as a result of previous work experiences, and they continue to perpetuate those learned behaviors. They have a very high fear of failure and a very low level of trust.
So, how we can help the people who live at risk and have a more difficult time managing change?
The Adaptability Quotient
I listened to a great TED Talk recently that explores how to help the people on the other side of organizational change — those along for the ride, so to speak. During the talk, transformational consultant and executive level coach Jennifer Jones discusses the four characteristics that can foster a person’s ability (and willingness) to adapt to change:
- Purpose: Purpose is what drives us. Purpose helps us adapt by guiding us toward a behavior or end result. As Winston Churchill pointed out, “It is wonderful what great strides can be made when there is a resolute purpose behind them.” Think about businesses that transformed an entire industry. Tesla’s purpose, for example, isn’t to build and sell electric cars. It’s “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” An earlier attempt at manufacturing and selling electric cars fizzled out in the ‘90s, so Tesla’s more inspirational purpose may have helped consumers overcome their initial resistance to trying something new.
TIP: Make sure people along for the ride understand the bigger purpose of the change and how it will benefit both the organization and their day-today work life.
- Inquisitiveness: Many people equate inquisitiveness with a growth mindset. The more questions you ask, the more you’ll learn. The more you learn, the more questions you’ll ask. Inquisitiveness is our inner child asking “Why?” continuously until we fully understand something, and it’s critical for growth and adaptability.
TIP: Foster a growth mindset by encouraging people to ask questions, either during group meetings or one on one, without fear of judgment.
- Resilience: Setbacks happen. Resilience is simply the ability to overcome these setbacks and get back on track. It takes 66 days on average to form a habit. Fortunately, an occasional stumble won’t derail your efforts. Most of us have stumbled at one point or another. The ability to get back on track and learn from your experience is what makes you more adaptable.
TIP: Don’t punish people for experiencing a setback; show empathy (we’re all human, after all) and encourage people to work together to find a creative solution and get back on track.
- Threat: No matter who you are, we all have a threat response when dealing with a real or perceived threat or danger. Even if that threat is psychological, the effect on the brain is equivalent to being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. Consistently experiencing a high level of threat hurts your ability to adapt overall. When you feel highly threatened, you shut down even more and your ability to reason through it won’t be there.
TIP: By consistently nurturing the above three positive characteristics within your organization, you will naturally help reduce people’s baseline threat levels.
The trick is to develop your PIR (Purpose, Inquisitiveness, and Resilience) and reduce your T (threat) down to a manageable level, which Jones calls the Adaptability Quotient:
The good news is that these aren’t fixed, genetic traits, but things we can all work on and improve over time. People can learn how to be adaptable. They can learn that it’s okay to ask questions. Everyone has the capacity to learn and to adapt. It just requires a focused commitment.
So, the next time you lead a cross-functional or organization-wide initiative, don’t forget about the people who are along for the ride. Providing a strong sense of purpose, encouraging any and all questions (“There’s no such thing as a stupid question” is the gold standard here), and letting people know the path to success may not always be a straight line (and that’s okay) will help your team members who live at risk become more adaptable and set everyone up for a more positive change management experience.
As Head of Client Success, Shauna Wager leads our client engagement teams in practices that focus on delivering exceptional client experiences by ensuring her team is equipped with the processes, skills, and tools to solve problems, encourage innovation, and lead our clients to exceed their goals and objectives. Shauna brings over 20 years of experience leading teams and clients to success, in both large and small organizations, across both B2B and B2C industries. Shauna’s investment in client success has been centered on working collaboratively with teams to deliver strategic marketing and sales solutions incorporating process, technology, education, and change management best practices that help guide organizations through digital transformation.