Embracing and managing uncertainty
By EVELYN TEH
“Stand straight, breathe in, roll your shoulders back, and breathe out as you fold forward and downward; touching your forehead to the knees as much as you can. Breathe in, hold it there, breathe out, continue holding…”
This statement illustrates a typical yoga session for a forward fold pose, albeit a simplified one. Yoga comes to my mind whenever the concept of change is discussed – it is a work in progress for me to adopt as a sustainable lifestyle.
Plus, doesn’t the idea of a yoga teacher in a position of authority and expertise, telling me to contort my body, sound like change that is imposed upon me?
One can always say “no” to the instructions, but then the question would fall back to my purpose of attending a yoga class.
Making change personal
Just like each of us in our respective organisations, we chose to be a part of it from the start, but what is the continuity when significant change occurs?
Organisations change. They restructure, merge, acquire, bring in new leaders, recruit new trainees, downsize, etc.
Classically, the phases of action revolve around Change Management 101 with decision-makers. But if most of us are yet to be in decision-making positions, how do we respond to “involuntary” change?
It is not so much the argument of how much formal decision-making power we have, but rather the argument of how we exercise whatever autonomy we have over our lives, in dealing with change at the most optimal.
Margaret J. Wheatley, co-founder of the Berkana Institute and well-known organisational consultant, puts it aptly: successful change initiatives are a consequence of each individual in the organisation developing and changing based on our freedom to create and preserve ourselves.
We will always interpret change based upon our individual paradigm, and thus, giving it its individual perspective. Therefore, it is arguably valuable to explore change management from an individual perspective.
Let’s go back to the scenario of an organisation restructure. Imagine that there has been rumours about a downsizing exercise.
A few of your colleagues have been asked to change departments, some leave, your boss tells you not to worry, you hear people in your industry saying that your CEO is leaving and that there will be changes in your top leadership team. What would your response be?
- Would you wait in fear and dread?
- Would you decide to move to a different company?
- Would you actually have predicted this scenario before it happened, and have your own plan of dealing with it?
In line with the notion of personal change management, this article takes a page from the Transtheoretical Change Model (TTM) which was originally developed to manage addictions and bad habits by integrating different schools of thought within the psychology of personal change.
The model assumes that behavioural change is a process across time and in sequence of stages that are stable, yet open to change.
In addition, specific processes and principles of change can be emphasised at different time points to maximise change efficacy.
I hope this article will help empower us to make the best choices in response to change, through understanding the process of personal change in combination with capacity-building.
It is not possible for a third person to determine the right choice in response to change.
Therefore, a key aspect of deciding which path to take greatly depends on our mindset of change. Naturally, we are comfortable with familiarity.
However, Tony Robbins, a prominent coach, suggests that alongside certainty, variety is also one of the six key human needs.
Often, it is not change itself that we are resisting, but the impact of change. For the longest time, a subconscious bias that we have had is that “longevity equated to goodness”.
Given this knowledge, perhaps we are now more open to accept that change is something we actively seek.
Another concept that helps build our capacity to embrace change is to look at it from different temporal lenses, especially since change is intertwined with time.
Firstly, viewing change as chronos (the core word for ‘chronology’, meaning constancy of time) leads to the realisation that just as time is continuous, so is change.
The first step to any response to change is accepting the idea that it will always happen, for better or for worse. Once we accept it and make it a part of reality, we give ourselves space to respond.
Another lesser known concept of time is kairos (roughly translates to opportune moment). All can happen right now, or nothing can happen at all – this is time in its qualitative nature.
Seeing change as kairos reminds us that even when change is constant, each moment is an opportunity to embrace change for a more positive or negative consequence.
In organisations, changes that are personally impactful tend to come in waves. When they do come, there is a window for transition for us to re-strategise.
In order to build ourselves toward an optimal response to change, this punctuated break needs to be seen as an opportunity to reflect.
Capacity building: skills
A paradigm shift is only the beginning, as it needs to go hand-in-hand with relevant skills to bring the mindset into well-adjusted action. One such skill is the ability to make balanced decisions through our own personal cost-benefit analysis.
There is the choice to go in-depth with such analysis. However, research with TTM shows that simple pros and cons on change are often sufficient for us to come to a decision.
Most people discount this simple act of balancing as an oversimplified exercise. But as with the Ockham’s Razor principle, simplicity is sometimes the best.
Beyond the skill of decisional balance, developing our self-efficacy is also important – not only to make decisions, but also to sustain them.
Self-efficacy is the belief of our personal capability in achieving success. One way to build on this is to understand our areas of strengths and weaknesses.
Again, in line with change as kairos, reflection on our strengths is valuable in persuading ourselves to see through our decisions.
On top of the variety of validated assessments, we also have ever-ready resources, such as our KPI (key performance indicators), colleagues’ feedback, performance review, etc.
The bonus: In building our own capacity to change, feedback allows us to provide interpersonal support to one another, thus strengthening our internal network in an unstable environment.
Understanding the process
Back to the TTM: As we deal with changes that come, we move across five different stages.
In Pre-contemplation, we may not even realise that change is required. This may be due to ignorance, denial, or active resistance.
While this could be due to a lack of information or learnt helplessness from overexposure to too many change initiatives, this is a risky stage to be in as change may already be brewing within the organisation.
A key to avoid being caught in this stage for too long is to be observant, so that we are on top of our game. Being aware of such a stage in change could already bring you to our next stage, Contemplation.
Contemplation is characterised by a newfound intention to change within the next six months. Despite that, it is also plagued with a profound sense of ambivalence now that we are aware of the pros and cons of changing.
To avoid ambivalence turning into procrastination, this is a good stage to intensify information gathering.
From there, action steps may bloom, thus moving us to the Preparation stage.
Preparation is described as the time where we have an idea of our plans for the next six months.
To effectively deal with it, we have to build our self-efficacy as well as constantly check and balance our action plans with the bigger action plans of the organisation.
The Action stage occurs after, and is similar to a tipping point where it triggers a series of actions following our decisions.
Carrying out our decisions fully can take some time, thus it is paramount to surround ourselves with the right people and right environment that support our decisions.
When all necessary steps have been taken, the tables turn to sustainability, as we move into the Maintenance stage whereby feedback is key for us to take actions which allow us to keep to our decision.
The automaticity of our behaviour across different circumstances lead to termination of this particular change stage.
So, what do you think is your right response towards the organisational restructuring? Perhaps there is none at this point. Nonetheless, build your capacity and be aware of the change that you will personally go through.
While the change process is never linear, the understanding of it will hopefully help us to be well-adjusted in this ever organic environment of organisational change and take it by its horns before it knocks us out.