I know that all of us in the Leadership and HR fields write about it endlessly, offering sometimes facile reminders like “The only constant in life is that everything changes,” or “To improve is to change.” And those clichés—well-worn because they’re true—are certainly worth remembering.
But we know, deep down, that it’s not quite that simple.
We often write about change as it happens to others: our employees, our teammates, our family members and friends. It’s easy, then, to offer simple advice because, after all, it’s happening to someone else. But when it happens to you, then you remember the truth of just what change really is.
Change is hard.
Try to remember the last time a big change occurred in your life. Perhaps it was a relocation from a place you had lived for many years to a place much less familiar. Or maybe it was a job change, and the trepidation that came from walking in that first day, not knowing anyone at all and suddenly realizing that you were now surrounded by relative strangers with whom you were about to spend eight or more hours a day, every day. Or maybe it was a sadder, more personal event, like the occasion when your first-born left for college and you realized that a voice, a pattern of footsteps, which had become part of you had now wrenched free.
If you’re like the rest of us, then it didn’t much matter whether someone offered you a timeless homily, didn’t matter if someone suggested you plan out what you would do next. If you’re like the rest of us then a big change hit you in the gut, sparked a viscerally emotional response. That was what needed to be dealt with before you could move forward—the feelings sparked by a major change in your life.
I sometimes wonder whether we, as consultants, as professionals, as experts, take the few needed moments to recall that when we help our organizations deal with change, there are very real people dealing with those changes, and most of those people are not thinking about denial and bartering, or Bridges’ famous model, or the precise ways in which communications are flowing from one group to the other. What most of them are probably thinking about—and quite justifiably—are What does this mean to me? and Will anyone listen to me? and What comes next?
We’ve all immersed ourselves in the how of helping organizations cope with change. We need, equally, to remember the how of helping people cope with change. In fact the latter, I would argue, is far more important, for it’s the people that create our organizations. It is always crucial—in any “change project”—that we take the time to talk to people, to find out what they are feeling, to let them know that it’s okay, and to help them through it. Only then can organizations effectively manage change.