We are wired for change. It is as much a part of our DNA as anything. From the moment we are born, change starts and everything changes. Our physical appearance changes and evolves. Our minds and hearts develop and expand. We make choices that determine our work and lifestyle. Through each major phase of change we struggle, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot, with what we must do to fully embrace who we are becoming. And it continues until we take our last breath.
A few days ago I spent some very relaxed and reflective time with a woman who is quickly becoming a dear friend. While we just met a few months ago, we found each other because we attended the same undergraduate school and graduated the same year. However, during the four years that we were there we don’t remember ever encountering each other. As we have talked over the months we have discovered the ways in which our paths have been very different and, through the differences, we have also discovered shared experiences. And, for some reason, we have met at a time when we are experiencing similar life changes and challenges. During this very wonderful time in her garden a few days ago, we reflected on both the changes and challenges.
We are both struggling with our inability, at this stage of our lives, to continue to do many of the things that we have always done. And it is very easy to not own and be accountable for what we have created. I shared with her a moment that I had a couple of months ago with one of my nephews, who is now 30 years old. His age is relevant because it reinforces how long he has been in my life, developing a perception of who I am. He was very emotional, having seen my mother for the first time in her current state of dementia. I expressed to him that I understood his emotion because I also feel that emotion every time I go in to see and have to leave my mom. His response was that he knew that I was not emotional like that because I was always so strong. My first reaction was to be hurt that he could not see or believe my vulnerability. Later, as I journaling about it I had to ask myself why he had that perception. The answer; I have behaved and acted in ways that would easily have him arrive at that conclusion. In many conscious and unconscious ways I created that perception. It is not up to him to change what he perceives; it is up to me to change my behavior if I want a different perception.
My behavior has worked for me in many ways for most of my adult life. I have not felt successful in all aspects of my life. But I have been successful in some and my behavior was a defense mechanism that made me look pretty successful in all. My behaviors are ingrained patterns and not easy to change. And, like most others, I might not change if it were not for the fact that I am now at a time when it has become too hard to keep doing what I have always done. But behaving differently and not knowing what perceptions and results the differences will bring feels very risky.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Risking doing something in a way that is different from what we have usually done is one of the best definitions of being vulnerable. When I show that I may not be so “strong” and cannot do all that I have done in the past, I may not get responses that affirm me and make me feel good. In fact, to some degree, I probably will not get those kinds of responses. When this occurs, what must I do? First, I must remain clear about why I am changing. I am not making this change to elicit a certain response from others. I am doing it to change the circumstances of my life that must change at this time. If I am serious about the change in circumstance, I must persist. Second, I must continue to take accountability for what I created. As I change, I am signaling to others in my life that their response to me will need to change. As I persist, I will create a new truth about my relationship with them. If I do not persist I am relinquishing responsibility for re-creating what I created in the first place. Finally, I must have compassion for me and for them; allowing all of us to struggle through the change until we get to the other side. I have no reason to label them or me as wrong or bad.
I can’t fully address change without highlighting that changes in organizations, companies, communities, and government do not happen without people changing. As individuals, managers, and leaders we create environments that yield a certain set of results. The minute that we decide that some or many of the results must change, we are committing to re-creating what has been created. For that to occur, people must identify the behaviors that need to change and persist in changing them. Too often, we speak about the vision of what can be and then proceed to do what we have always done and/or make rules and policies that we think will force the change. Real change is about people moving and they move by working through the challenge of changing behaviors.
“The individual is the unit of change. Organizational change ultimately comes to life one person at a time. Changes are only successful when individuals do their jobs differently.”
– Prosci Case For Change Management