Key Lessons about Change

As I write this, the woods behind my home are a breathtaking mix of yellows, greens and oranges, with a sprinkling of reds. It reminds me that change can indeed be a beautiful thing. However, within a couple of weeks, the trees will be bare, and my yard will be covered with a deep layer of mostly brown, dead leaves, leaving me with a royal mess to clean up. That last image is too often the way change is viewed in one’s work life. We were getting along just fine, and then change came along and made a mess of everything.

1-change4Like the seasons, change is inevitable. However it is far less predictable and feels much more frequent. Change is the source of much stress and uncertainty. Yet, it can also be the launch pad for some extraordinary accomplishments.

In the classic video, “Celebrate What is Right With The World,” National Geographic photographer DeWitt Jones talks about the change curve as actually being an opportunity curve, if you are able to see it that way. Trouble is, when a well-functioning, comfortable “old way” is suddenly turning into an unsettling, potentially messy “new way,” it can be very hard to see the opportunity.

One of the key responsibilities of leadership is to help get people, teams and organizations to adapt to, grow from, and prosper with change. And that starts with the realization that change is not simply some external event which results in new structures, job requirements, or ways of doing things.  Change is an internal, emotional upheaval, and it must be recognized as such. When I hear comments such as, “Don’t worry, this change is mostly moving a few boxes on an organization chart,” I sort of cringe, knowing there will likely be more distress than expected, right around the corner.

And leaders – never forget that just because you are in a leadership position, does not make you immune to having your own emotional response to change as well. As you put on your rock solid game face of confidence and acceptance for others, you may discover that you too, will still have the need to have some antacids close by.

In order to help yourself and others through the continuing disruptor called change, let me remind you of some key principles, which hopefully we be of value to you. Ideally, they will prompt you to think differently about change, and create more options on how to navigate yourself and others through it more successfully. Here we go.

People do not dislike change – they dislike being changed. Think about the number of significant changes you have initiated in your life, from repainting a room to something much larger such as getting married or moving into an exciting new job. The lesson is this: change done to us can easily be seen as a threat, while change done by us is more likely to be viewed as an opportunity. Leaders, as change is done to you and your teams, strive to find ways to give people freedom to take proactive and innovative steps to turn the lemon of change into the lemonade of opportunity. Remember, you always have more options than you think, on how you can respond to whatever change is dealt to you.

  1. The next principle is that there is always loss with change – always. It may be the loss of a minor convenience or the loss of a deep relationship. Recognizing and making the feeling of loss visible and legitimate, can assure others they are not alone – or weak – or abnormal. Loss hurts, but legitimizing it can be a big first step in equipping people to start replacing the loss with another positive outcome. It is a poor and out of touch leader who tries to minimize loss from change by telling others that they should not feel uncomfortable, or threatened, or whatever. Never again waste one more second trying to de-legitimize or dismiss how someone else feels during change. Rather use your compassion and empathy to help them build the confidence to handle the loss, and then demonstrate support and guidance in helping them move on to a new and desirable outcome. And you are correct, that is never easy.
  2. Finally, replace the past-focus of how good things used to be, with an uplifting and exciting vision of the payoff from the change being experienced. I have worked with too many people at all levels who simply accept the victim mentality of change. So the most encouraging message they can provide is “hopefully, we will get through this.” How dismal is that? Where are the leaders who are confidently professing, “here is what we are trying to accomplish with this change, and why it matters so much. Here is the big picture of what we are seeking to achieve, and the compelling reasons for why we are so committed to the struggle to get there.” The important lesson is that the benefit of change must be greater than the pain to change. Leaders have to consistently provide a meaningful reason for people to accept the loss of today, and proactively fight for a better tomorrow. Change with no vision, becomes change for the sake of change. And that is what saps energy, spirit, and for that matter, productivity.

You cannot control change that happens to you, but you always have a say in how you are going to respond to it. And that might be the key lesson of all. When confronted with change, respond. Take some kind of action to make change work for you, rather than doing nothing but lamenting, and wishing that change had never happened. You, and your team, are helpless only if you believe you are. So, erase that belief in your head, and begin replacing it with one of possibilities, options and future success.

For me, those beautiful, golden leaves signify that the long summer days, which I love so dearly, are lost again, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. So, I guess I will just have to pick up some great books, park myself in front of a toasty fireplace, and maybe even occasionally sip a delightful twelve year old “winter beverage.” Something tells me I will do more than just get through the change of seasons, I might even enjoy the heck out of it.

Here’s to embracing and prospering from change.


  1. Jodi Landers says

    I’ll never look at a lemon the same way!! Awesome Steve – thanks for sharing!

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