Change Agents: What Do You Do When You're On The Receiving End Of Change

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Jeff Cole

Change agents spend a great deal of time helping to escort others in an organization through complex changes. But who helps the change agents when they’re on the receiving end of a change? This month, columnist Jeff Cole pulls back the curtain to look behind the scenes at how to manage your own reactions to change.

What kind of summer job did you have in high school? Mowing lawns and fast food were the standard fare where I lived. One summer I got inventive. Armed with my dad’s paintbrush and ladder, I boldly set forth as Ohio’s newest house painter. As the ink was drying on my crude business cards, I trooped door to door experiencing this thing called rejection.

I wish you were with me when I went up to one memorable home in desperate need of help. Paint was peeling off in sheets the size of notebook paper. After going through my standard spiel with the lady at the door, she informed me that her husband was actually a professional house painter! "We’re kind of the shoemaker’s children, I guess" she said. That was my first taste of that concept. I later encountered many "cooks that don’t eat their own cooking". (This includes a shocking number of six sigma belts who apply none of those tools to their own departments…)

The most ironic example of this concept involved a company that had a bloated Organizational Development department with several hundred change consultants. On a daily basis, these people helped others adjust to the many changes that accompany corporate life. When it came time to reorganize and downsize their department, guess which group reacted worst to the change? The change agents themselves. They were so accustomed to being on the driving end of change that when they were suddenly in the crosshairs of the receiving end, their skills and knowledge momentarily went out the window!

We’re all leaders and change agents either formally or informally. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have an official title and dozens or hundreds of people reporting to you. Individual contributors are change agents in their own right. The secret is this: if you want to lead people through change, you personally have to absorb that change first (and quickly) in order to help others. How can you manage yourself through a change? Here are a couple tips:

  • Keep your eyes moving – if you see a freight train of a change coming from a mile away, you have ample time and numerous ways to get off the track. If you are so buried in your to-do lists or assume trains don’t run down your track, you may not look up until the heat of its headlight is on the back of your neck. Your choices at that point are limited – jump fast or become road-kill.
  • If – Then Thinking: Computer programmers do something naturally that many of us don’t. They do "if-then" thinking. They don’t just knock back Red Bull and slam out code at random. They have to anticipate all the possible odd things software users may do and have logic in the code that can safely process that. You do some of this naturally – if your main route to work is blocked, then you take an alternate route. Some people don’t think to apply this to other areas of their processes or lives. It’s worth a little time thinking in advance -- If xyz happens, then I will ….
  • Stimulus-response: If you lose control, your change has lost control. I’ve written about this before, but studies of POWs confirm that it’s not stimulus-response, it’s stimulus-gap-response. While you may have zero control over a stimulus (event or change), you do have, during that small gap, the ability to choose your response. While natural instinct may offer one response, you can override that with another if you work at it. You can choose to stay positive in the face of chaos. You can choose to act professionally even if you feel you are being treated disrespectfully and your instinct is to chuck the decision-maker out the nearest window. Each choice you make sends you in a distinct direction. One choice leads to another and they build upon each other to send you to a specific destination – your destiny if you will. The choices are yours and yours alone.
  • Have yourself as a client: In 1908, Napoleon Hill was assigned by Andrew Carnegie to study 500 of the most successful people and distill his findings into a formula for success. In 1937, Hill wrote the best seller "Think and Grow Rich". One practice was to form a kind of guiding coalition of mentors – the best minds possible to help guide and advise you. If you didn’t have access to the world’s brightest minds, you could still study them and imagine a discussion with them – What would Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Oprah or Abraham Lincoln advise me to do in response to this change? No time to study them? Not a problem. Imagine this: divorce yourself from the impending change for a moment. What if you had yourself as a client? What would you advise that person to do? How would you help lead that person through the change? Some of the toughest and most successful people on earth started in very adverse conditions and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. We all have a multi-faceted version of ourselves in our heads. Tap into the right version of you to help advise the "rest of you" on how to respond to the latest change that just came out of left field.

Change unfolds in many ways, directions, and speeds. Using these tips can help keep you nimble and often allow you to "spin" a change in a way advantageous to you!