How To Be Effective In Change Management – And Not Just In The Office

MountaEffective leadership and change management
Sometimes we do not even realize it. That life is all about change.

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How To Be Effective In Change Management - And Not Just In The Office

MountaEffective leadership and change management

Sometimes we do not even realize it. That life is all about change. We may think of life’s road turning into a different direction or getting new responsibilities at work. But change is happening in a much smaller context as well. And it is happening every day, throughout the day. Without properly dealing with change, life can become like finding your way up the mountain in a blizzard. So, ask yourself this question: “How effective are you in your change management process?” If you aren’t quite sure, or you are too sure of managing the job of dealing with change, read on.

Change is the only constant

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated, change is the only constant in our lives. When I look at my own experiences, I can only confirm Heraclitus’ observation.

“Change is the only constant.” – Heraclitus (Greek philosopher)

I have worked in different international organizations and with transnational teams across the globe. Work and the work setting were all about changes. The type of change was diverse, from working groups to policy. Through adjustments, we reflect, learn, and develop. Managing change was a constant factor.

Not just in the office, the managing of changes can also be seen outside the office. One of the places to observe constant change is up in the mountains. As a mountaineer, I have experienced change in all its dimensions. Climbing, especially high-altitude mountaineering, can be very well used as a metaphor in the change management process.

Change management: loosening or tightening

What becomes certain, whether being at high-altitude, in the office or at home, is that managing change is about identifying risks. It is about determining to what extent we can either mitigate those risks or accept the fact that we take on a degree of uncertainty outside of our control.

For every action we take in daily life, we (un)consciously weigh the pros and cons. We decide many times a day whether we opt for a change or to stay with the same. We either manage change through a conscious structured approach, aiming to implement changes smoothly and thoroughly. Or we barely manage change actively and let the winds of change blow us where they may.

Successful change management also has a lot to do with whether you are in a position to choose for that change to happen. Life’s changes that come unexpectedly and outside of our sphere of control can have quite a different effect on people.

Why are some people sailing gently through all the changes life throws at them, while others even get upset if they have to change their breakfast cereal?

The Change Curve

Although change can have different effects on people, plenty of evidence shows that everyone goes through the same process when dealing with change. In some cases, however, the stages of change may take longer or shorter than others.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross designed a ‘Change Curve’ model in the 1960s. This model derives from her work in which she analyzed terminally ill patients and their grieving process. Five stages identified the personal transition that people typically experience when they deal with change: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Change Curve in the Andes

I remember going through these five stages of personal transition while dealing with change at over 5700 m.a.s.l. in the Andes in the middle of the night. I was climbing my way up through chimneys of ice and snow and over deep crevasses. And I felt strong, placing my feet in the same rhythm for hours, breathing heavily but controlled. The freezing wind of -25°C, which covered my clothing and gear with icy crystals, did not bother me. I had mitigated the risks and was willing to accept those out of my control.

I was going to make it to the summit at the crack of dawn. Or so I thought. My climbing partner had started to have symptoms of altitude sickness the previous evening, and it had gotten worse throughout the ascent that night. Reflecting on that situation, I went through the five stages of dealing with a change.

At first, I was in denial. I thought, by shouting through the wind the rhythm of our steps, my climbing partner would be able to at least continue by following my steps. For a while, it worked, but we were going slower and slower. “If we continue like this,” I thought, “the conditions on the upper ice wall will be changing, making the risk of unstable ice bigger.”

Going into the next stage, I was getting agitated, not so much angry, but a sense of “I must continue now while I’m in such good shape still.” It became clear that it would be too risky to let my climbing partner continue. We stood still for a moment on a snowy ledge, while another team of mountaineers passed us by in their trance of rhythm.

Next, I started to go into bargaining. Still a little worked up from the fresh coca tea and the effect of less oxygen to the brain, I was proposing different ideas—all with the same goal in mind: for me to continue. But with just the two of us, and no other teams in sight anymore, my bargaining was bound to fail. There was no other alternative than to go back down.

A strong feeling of defeat and disappointment, which hung over me like a cloud, followed the bargaining stage. Halfway down, we took a moment to watch the sunrise over the Andes. Our morning snack was hard as a rock, and it took a long time before it melted in our dry mouths. After eleven hours on the mountain, we were back in the city. I felt detached from the world around me. And I could only think of going back up there.

It took a long night’s rest and the following day talking with my climbing partner about what had happened, to finally accept the whole situation. We learned we had not thought of all the possible changes which could occur. And how to deal with those changes in the best way at that very moment. We came to understand that we were not fully aware of how we would react to change, especially in such harsh conditions.

The Change Curve has proven to be a trusted and robust model that can help predict how individuals will respond to change. Later studies showed precisely that which we had experienced: that people react in similar ways to deprivation as they would in a grieving process. Understanding the process of accepting change is an essential aspect of managing individual or team change. When you know at which stage a person is in the Change Curve, you can decide when to communicate information, and what kind of support that person requires.

The key within the change process

But before we can take action to guide the process of change, we may ask ourselves why we have difficulties with (even the smallest) change. The key lies in the fact of how you view change, and even more critically, your level of acceptance of uncertainty.

Looking back to that time in the Andes, it was the uncertainty that dominated my reaction to the change. I was going strong and confident to summit that beautiful mountain. Having to turn back and the initial difficulty I had with that decision, all had to do with the fact that I was not sure whether such a chance would present itself again. The opportunity of mountaineering with this partner up in the Andes. A one-time chance. It was a feeling of “if not now, then when?” which made it difficult to descend back down early.

Evidence shows that human beings find uncertainty the most stressful – and not the change itself. It is the worry of ‘what will I do now?’ which seems to be the most difficult for people. But developing some simple skills can help you develop effective change management in your personal and work life.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)

Simple skills for effective change management

One of the most straightforward skills you can teach yourself to guide the process of change management – and thus, the way you respond to change – is to ask yourself questions.
The first question is to determine whether you are in a situation that you can control or not. So, start asking yourself:

“Is there anything I can do to change the likelihood of this happening? Or can I do anything about the outcome if it happens?”

If you feel the answer resounds as a strong ‘No,’ then you should park the issue. Make sure to start thinking about something else to let your mind move away from the subject.

However, if there is a situation or issue over which you do have control, then firstly, you must stop worrying about the potential change. Start asking yourself these five questions instead:

To become aware of the change’s potential:
1. “What could be the positive aspect of the change happening?”
2. “Is the outcome favorable for me?”

To determine the possible consequences of not accepting the change:
3. “Is there anything I can realistically do to change this event from happening?”
4a. “What could be the possible consequences if I could prevent the change from happening?”
4b. “If I can prevent the change, will I then still be happy with the outcome?

To shift the mindset from non-acceptance to creative solution-thinking:
5. “Is there anything I can do to change the outcome to a more favorable one?”

Regardless of your whereabouts and situation, ultimately, asking the question itself sometimes is the answer. Whether being up on the mountain, at home or work, if you are in a state of asking questions consciously, you are already aware of the fact that you are dealing with a change. And that is the essential step in managing change processes in your daily life and the office.

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