Lusting for Change?

“You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”                       Heraclitus (c.540 – c.475 BC)

There is a lust for change in the air; Closeup of flowing water over rockssocial, political, economic, environmental. Case in point is a recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll that saw 64% of those polled profess the US political system is basically dysfunctional. One can easily interpret this as a cry for change. And yet 56% of the same people want the next president to have some experience in this dysfunctional political system vs. coming from outside of it.

What gives? Do people want real change or not? Maybe they want both.

It is entirely natural to feel a profound push-pull when it comes to change. Many of us find ourselves dreaming of what is new and different. And yet how many of us panic, even momentarily, when the specter of change arises? As Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, the “waters are ever flowing” and nothing remains the same no matter how constant it may appear to be. But humans, being humans, make themselves believe this is not so.

In January 2013, the New York Times reported a study published in Science about “End of History” illusion, the belief by individuals that their preferences, likes and behaviors are pretty much set by the point in time in which they are asked about them. The irony is that our future selves will consistently look back at our past selves and clearly see how we have changed. It’s our present selves who naively underestimate how malleable we really are. We constantly believe that our personal change histories have somehow “ended” even though we accept without question that we are different than we were before. In other words, we know we have changed but refuse to think that we will continue to change.

Understanding change on an individual basis sets the backdrop for how a leader needs to balance the lust for change within a company with the reaction to it by those affected. For leaders, understanding the all too human push-pull of change is critical. Why does this matter? Because leadership is essentially an exercise in influence. The best leaders know how to positively influence, incent and incite others to do the work necessary to keep an enterprise healthy and growing. The people, who collectively allow the leader to exercise power on their behalf, want the leader to provide them with a few things: 1) A sense of where they are going (the vision), 2) A sense of how they will get there (the strategy), 3) An outline of what it means to them day to day (the operations), and, 4) How they will be treated/rewarded for their efforts (the contract).

If change constantly happens – whether we acknowledge it or not – leaders are in a tremendous position to productively navigate the human desire for, and reaction to, change. While a leader cannot eliminate the natural push-pull reality of change, she can use her influence to shorten the time it takes for employees to cycle through it. Here’s how:

  • Actively and consistently communicate that the current environment is ever changing: People are great at recognizing what just happened but not so great at seeing it coming. The more they internalize the reality that change is happening every second of the day, the more ready they will be to recognize it as it happens around them.
  • Keep painting a potential future complete with the changes necessary to reach it: Acclimating people to the reality of change is one thing. Helping them understand where it may lead is another. Skilled leaders add substance to the concept of change by offering a clear, compelling picture of what it will yield.
  • Stay real by acknowledging the challenge of change and the times you have grappled with it: Change is hard to get ahead of because it is conceptual until well after it has passed. By being open, honest and vulnerable, a leader gives permission to everyone in the company to see change as challenging at times but ultimately something that can be lived through.

Perpetuating the illusion that change happens on an unpredictable cycle is foolish and dangerous. Courting it recklessly is equally foolish and dangerous. But living in the flow of it, wide eyed and welcoming, is a stand that any smart leader would be wise to embrace.








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