What just happened? Six tips to surviving sudden change

Jeff Cole

Have you ever been in a situation where you are minding your own business when a life or career-altering change comes blazing out of left field? And you are left scratching your head and wondering "What just happened here?" Sometimes we have clear warnings, other times a vague feeling, and sometimes it’s just a dumbfounding "against all remote statistical odds" slap in the face.

Often preceding such events are phrases akin to "Can I see you in the conference room for a minute?" , "Here’s our new policy," or "I have some bad news…".

(And In some cases you don’t hear anything – you’re left to discover a massive change on your own…)

Regardless of the situation, in each case your expectations have been shattered. That triggers a complex and interrelated series of chemical, emotional, and mental reactions. In leadership training we learn that when met with bad or shocking news our initial reaction should be that we already knew. However, behind that facade, these reactions are still gurgling away at 200 mph in your system.

Below are six things to keep in mind that will help us bounce back quickly from a sudden change:

#1: Act Now

Things may eventually get better once the dust settles on whatever your change is and you get used to it. However, there may be some immediate actions you need to take and a short one-time-only window in which you can take action. Before you do so, do quickly consider what longer-term benefits or collateral damage there may be in your actions. Take your time on long-term strategy if need be, but scan for and immediately address any urgent tasks.

#2: Be Professional

If you are blindsided by a change (in business especially), be polite and professional. Take the high road. Politeness does not equate to weakness. If something totally unfair, illogical, unethical, illegal, or just plain wrong is happening to you, note that while you do not control the change you do indeed control your response to that change. There is "what" you do and "how" you do it. Try to make the "how" as professional as possible in any business situation.

#3: Minimize Shell Shock

Whenever your expectations are shattered it triggers an involuntary reaction (this is actually a principle behind why we laugh at jokes or applaud magicians). Sometimes this reaction feels like a mild form of shock, if the expectation gap is large and personal enough. Then there are the classic stages like denial, anger, etc. Rarely is staring like a deer into a set of halogens the reaction that is in your best interest. Often you will benefit if you can shake off this fog of "shock" sooner rather than later. One way to do so is tip #1 above – focusing on any immediate actions, however minor, you can take that will help.

#4: Initiate Containment

One best practice we can take from the problem solving methodology called "8D" (the D is for disciplines) is the notion of containment. Whenever a large problem shows up on our radar, 8D tells us that one of the early things we should do is initiate containment actions to ensure this problem does not grow larger or do more damage while we try to solve it. Try to mentally place a firewall around this change by determining the extent of its impacts. What can you control, influence or negotiate and what can’t you? Are there any short or longer-term actions you might take to lessen the downside and enhance the upside of this change?

#5: Control Your Perspective

Life is all about perspective. One man may see a change as a crisis and another view that same change as an opportunity. It may not be in your best interest to solely focus on the negative aspects of a sudden change. Nor is it necessarily healthy to focus on just the positives with total disregard to potential down-side risk. A balanced approach may be helpful. If your natural "default perspective" is skewed heavily on one side or the other, or you gravitate heavily to one side, ask yourself if you are taking a balanced view of this change. As long as you are conscious, you get to control what questions you ask yourself and what you focus on and think about.

#6: Help Others

When met with any major change, authors will tell you that we all go through a series of mental or emotional stages before coming to terms with the change. The dust settles, and we accept the change as the new status quo. Some people will blast cleanly through that acceptance process in a few minutes, and for others it’s a longer, rougher road. One way some people find helpful in getting through a tough change is by helping others. In order to lead people through a tricky change, you first have to navigate the acceptance curve yourself. Sometimes, the act of helping guide others through a change helps that leader assimilate the change faster themselves!