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Gary Winters

Leadership Coach

The More Things Change

It’s been widely observed and generally accepted that the world is changing at a faster clip than ever, and that the rate of change is accelerating.

What’s not changing, however, is our capacity to absorb it, deal with it, and integrate it. We still do it the same old-fashioned human way as our ancestors did – but today, we have much more to absorb.

How do people react to change?

I learned a great exercise in a workshop with Ken Blanchard years ago that beautifully illustrated seven “dynamics” of change.

Participants were asked to find a partner, stand facing them, and take a few moments to “memorize” their appearance. Next they were asked to turn back-to-back and alter (change) their own appearance in five ways. People removed jewelry, loosened their tie, took off a name badge, etc.

Then they were asked to face one another and see if they could tell what had been changed. After a few moments, they were instructed to turn back-to-back a second time – and make ten additional changes to their own appearance – for a total of 15!

Lots of nervous laughter. Comments like “You’ve got to be kidding!” and “There’s no way!” filled the air.

None-the-less, people did their best, and once again, faced one another and tried to identify the changes.

Finally, Ken asked everyone to thank their partner and return to their seats. Everyone did – but not until they’d put everything back in place and returned to their original appearance.

Ken debriefed the exercise, pointing out seven fairly predictable behaviors as people attempted to make changes in their own appearance. As he pointed out, these behaviors will appear regardless of the change being made. Not everyone experienced all of the dynamics, but in a group, it was a safe bet that someone reacted with each one.

  1. First, most folks felt awkward and ill-at-ease as they gazed at their partner, trying to memorize their appearance.
  2. Second, most people found themselves asking themselves a question – “What do I have to give up?” when asked to alter their appearance. This was demonstrated by the fact that nearly everyone “subtracted” from their appearance – they removed watches, rings, and nametags. Very few if any “added” to their appearance.

When asked to make an additional ten changes to their appearance, four different dynamics were on display – not by any one person, but by the group as a whole.

  1. Many people felt overwhelmed. Ten additional changes was just too much to ask.
  2. Many people also felt that they lacked the resources to do what was asked. They would later joke that they “hadn’t worn enough clothes” to make more changes. They also admitted they felt stumped – as though they weren’t smart enough to comply with the instruction.
  3. Some folks felt isolated and alone – they felt they had to figure it out all by themselves. They demonstrated this dynamic by avoiding eye contact with other participants, and by not scanning the room for ideas from others.
  4. There was a wide variety of thoughts and feelings about making those ten changes. People were at a different level of readiness to make the changes. Some took it as a challenge and enjoyed puzzling it out – others balked, and some even quit the exercise and sat down.

Finally, when Ken asked participants to return to their seats, nearly everyone reverted right back to their original appearance, even when they had made changes that would appear to leave them more relaxed (such as loosening ties).

It’s critical that leaders understand these dynamics and prepare to deal with them.

Whether you’re about to introduce a new policy, a new system, a new set of goals, some new technology or whatever to your team, you need to consider how you’re going to handle the human dynamics of change.

Can you help people feel less awkward and ill-at-ease in the beginning? Sometimes, this can be as simple as acknowledging that they are going to feel awkward. Making it okay to have an experience can minimize the uncomfortable feelings about that experience.

Are people likely to wonder what they have to give up? Again, acknowledge that there may be losses, but there’s much to be gained – and point out what.

If people might be overwhelmed, or feel that they don’t have the resources to make the change, give them tools, training, change partners, tutorials, examples, demonstrations, coaching and the like. Same goes for the folks who might feel isolated – pair them up with others.

If you fail to address the natural, predictable, human response to change, you may have a new problem to solve – the tendency for people to revert back to older behaviors. If, on the other hand, you can support them through the uncomfortable stages of change adaptation, you will greatly increase the odds of successful implementation.


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