When I started my career, change management consulting was my primary work. There was a recession, and businesses focused on cutting expenses and improving operational efficiencies. I worked in several companies that mandated across the board cuts, leaving business leaders to determine how to accomplish more with fewer resources. I have depth and breadth of experience with personal, team, and organizational change.
We used this poignant visual to help explain what people were experiencing during change.
Your goal is to summit the hill in front of you. The catch is this. There is a rubber band looped around your waist and a large boulder at your starting point. The rubber band is very loose when you start, barely noticeable. As you climb, however, tension slowly builds so that each step forward also creates a backward pull. This resistance drains your energy while simultaneously requiring more effort. The pull to abandon your goal of the summit increases with each uncomfortable step forward. You begin to do the mental value equation of effort versus reward. Is the vista at the top that much better than the one you can already see? What do you gain from finishing this goal? How much does this matter to you?
I love my field, psychology, because it presents reason and rationality to our shared human condition. I am intrigued by why we behave in predictable ways, including our struggle to embrace change. Although there are exceptions, these are the generalities uncovered by psychological research into human behavior that explain the struggle we have with change.
ONE. We have an innate desire to protect our self-image. This is why we don't like to be corrected by others or told that we are wrong. This is why we are quick to rationalize our actions when others challenge them.
TWO. Our need to be right is so strong that our brains filter out facts and information contrary to our beliefs and understanding, giving preference to data supporting our formed conclusions [learn more].
THREE. Our preservation of self-identity extends to all areas of our lives. We seek security and predictability, which are enabled by routine. We prefer the known to the unknown. Even when our choices put us at risk, their entanglement with our identity causes us to self-sabotage.
Friday afternoon, we attended my daughter's graduation at a nearby drive-in theater. Families were required to stay in their vehicles. Strict enforcement of social distancing enabled the graduates to participate unmasked. This event was a small step forward from the #healthyathome restrictions in place since March. Hearing the students' speeches filled with gratitude for their classmates' camaraderie, added to my appreciation of their ability to gather for this right of passage. However, what caught me by surprise is my awakened desire to slip back into the ease of life before COVID-19. For the first time since this started, I'm finding myself resentful that I cannot freely move through my life without concern, planning, or precaution.
The unencumbered freedom of living is the boulder in this change story. When nations around the globe responded to this health crisis with shelter in place orders, we were at the bottom of the hill. As we began our climb, it was challenging, but our stamina for change was fresh, and our concern for the health and safety of our community was compelling. With each step toward some altered form of our prior freedoms, however, the rubber band's tension grows. Constantly changing information and seeds of distrust in public authority add to the internal pull to return to the stability of life as we knew it before COVID-19 disrupted everything.
I want you to know that if you are like me, and suddenly this feels harder than it did when we were quarantining in our homes, you are not alone. And this stage of preventing the spread of the Coronavirus may be the hardest. Continually adapting is mentally taxing and requires more effort. We just want to slip back into our old routines, and that tension on the rubber band makes each step forward harder. The unity of our early experience is harder to maintain because returning to life as we knew it is alluring. We are growing weary of pushing forward through uncertainty and instability. We are stuck in the messy middle of this change, looking for a miracle.
As we move forward, don't be surprised if your employees are distracted or less productive. You may see angry exchanges after weeks of compassionate discourse. You may hear frustration and intolerance when asking employees to change operational procedures. As a leader, emotional intelligence continues to be an essential skill.
Resist the temptation to avoid emotional situations. Suspend your judgment and turn on your curiosity. Let go of your need to fix situations, and appreciate that being present, intently listening, and giving your employees a safe space to express their emotional turmoil is what this stage of change demands. Being the coach who asks questions to increase clarity and discovery and assures confidence in your collective ability to get through the messy middle together will pay dividends well beyond this pandemic.