Guest writer Nate Regier is a 1990 graduate of Bethel College (psychology). He earned his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kansas before serving for 11 years as a staff psychologist with Prairie View in Newton.
Nate is CEO and co-founding owner of Next Element Consulting, a global leadership advisory firm specializing in transformative communication. He is the author (with Jeff King) of Beyond Drama: Transcending Energy Vampires (Next Element Publishing, 2013) and a guest columnist for several publications, and publishes a weekly blog on the practice of compassionate accountability in leadership and life. Contact Nate at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Change takes many forms. Sometimes we initiate change enthusiastically. Sometimes we are responsible for leading a third-party change initiative. Sometimes change happens to us without our choosing. Regardless, change is necessary and stressful.
Organizations that negotiate change well avoid three typical traps. Victims become helpless, avoiding conflict and withdrawing into despair. They fail and believe it was their fault. Rescuers approach change believing the myth that knowledge is sufficient. They learn about the problem and give everyone else advice about what to do. Persecutors attack, blame or manipulate to avoid responsibility, believing they are right and everyone else is wrong.
In my experience, educational institutions particularly struggle with Rescuer reactions to change. Social service and faith-based organizations get trapped by Victim and Persecutor reactions. Nimble and successful organizations avoid all three.
How do these traps manifest? Victim organizations fail to leverage their gifts and assert their value. They become silent when they should be speaking out. Rescuers fail to adapt because they never get out of their heads. They waste energy on research and consultants, but take little meaningful action. Persecutors spend their energy blaming, justifying and attacking, and eventually get knocked down to size because of their arrogance. They’d rather be right than open up to the realities around them.
Our company specializes in helping organizations and leaders navigate change through better communication and positive conflict. Our “Cycle of Compassionate Change” describes how healthy change happens, predicts the associated dynamics and anticipates key decisions along the way.
Openness, Resourcefulness and Persistence are three interdependent, sequential stages of change.
Healthy change starts with Openness—emerging awareness that change is happening or is needed, and the experience of the emotional impact of that change on us. Humans are creatures of habit. We like predictability, so it’s natural to keep on keeping on as long as it’s working. But the world changes, and what got us this far won’t propel us into the future, no matter how well it has served us before. As Henry Ford said, “The biggest threat to future success is past success.”
Typical emotions during this stage of change are fear, anxiety and uncertainty. There are urges to hunker down, self-protect and hope the danger will go away. The most healthy response during this stage is to own and express our authentic emotions, without judgment.
Leaders of change help people express their feelings, identify their concerns and share these in a safe environment.
Caution: openness is not about cognitive understanding. Head work comes later. Starting with the heart it critical, and is often difficult for leaders.
During the Openness stage, empathy, compassion and a listening ear are critical leadership skills. As a leader, the single most important thing you can do is share your authentic feelings and disclose your motives. Without this, trust cannot be established.
Moving beyond openness requires the courage to ask for what we want. What discomfort do we want to alleviate? What end state are we driving for? How do we want to feel, behave and relate differently? What are our dreams and aspirations?
Resourcefulness comes next and involves the process of learning and exploration. Resourcefulness pursues an intellectual understanding of what’s going on and what we might do about it. Most change facilitators and leaders start here, thinking that assessment and research come first, unaware that they are putting the cart before the horse.
Unless emotional drivers are honored up front, no amount of knowledge will successfully bridge the gap between where we are today and where we want to be in five or 10 years. These unspoken and unvalidated drivers will lurk beneath the surface and sabotage the best strategic plans. We’ve worked with many organizations who have brilliantly detailed strategic plans that fail because of unaddressed emotional issues.
Leading through resourcefulness involves facilitating open dialogue, allowing all voices to be heard, and experimenting with ideas. Great leaders foster an environment where this can happen, and where people can fail quickly, fail safely and fail forward.
One of the most biggest roadblocks to change is fear of failure. This is particularly difficult in academic institutions where thinking it through and getting it right are prized. Perhaps one goal of liberal arts education should be to teach people how to fail spectacularly.
Getting stuck at Resourcefulness is particularly easy. It’s called analysis paralysis. Moving forward requires the discipline to make a decision, even without knowing exactly how it will turn out, and embracing the loss of the road not taken. Failure to honor this loss keeps many organizations stuck. Unfortunately, many consultants in my field thrive on this by playing into the insatiable thirst for more analyses, projections and focus groups as a way to avoid the grief of letting go and the fear of the unknown.
Next comes Persistence. Persistence is about courage, follow-through, execution and commitment. It’s where we take action and see it through, doing the tough work of learning new habits, holding each other accountable and resisting the temptations to fall back into our comfort zones. Persistence is where our resolve is tested, where our constituencies and employees resist the difficult work of change, hoping that if they hold out long enough we will give in.
Leading through persistence requires clarity of purpose, willingness to hold people accountable for new behaviors, the courage to let people go who do not support the new vision. We have guided many leaders through this difficult period, usually seeing an initial rise in attrition as accountability is enforced.
It doesn’t end here. Persistence is a dangerous place to stay because it is not open. Persistence can very easily mutate into persecution if leaders develop tunnel vision and refuse to get feedback. Thus the cycle. A return to Openness means stopping, listening and taking stock.
All good change trajectories are cyclical, moving through the stages as needed to stay on track. Organizations who develop cultures of Openness, Resourcefulness and Persistence position themselves to innovate, grow and stay relevant. Those who don’t find themselves in the traps of Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor, wasting their energy on self-justification and drama while their mission flounders. Leaders and their organizations can use the Cycle of Compassionate Change as a framework for guiding healthy change.