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Change-Challenged? Don't Fight It

February 22, 2000 -- FORUM -- Page 2C By Dr. Carol McCoy

PORTLAND-- Mergers, acquisitions, down-sizing, right-sizing, reorganization, new ventures, changing technology, and changing directions are the watchwords of today's organizations. We also face a blur of constant change in our personal lives -- birth , marriage, graduation, death, divorce, separation, new neighbors, changing health, changing economic status, new educational demands, and on and on.

While change brings stress and demands for coping skills, it also brings renewed energy, revitalization, new ideas, new business opportunities, a chance to form new relationships, use new skills, shed old ways and attitudes that no longer serve us, and an opportunity to improve how we live our lives.

Navigating change may be the most critical skill of the 21st century--not only for people who lead organizations and for those who are employed as front-line workers but for anyone who lives on our planet. What if you're not good at change? Here are some warning signs that you need to improve your change mastery skills:

When you hear of an impending change do you: Feel anxiety in the pit of your stomach and begin to sweat? Think of what will go wrong? Wonder how or if you'll be able to cope? Think of all the losses you'll face? Ponder, "Why me? What will they want me to do next?" Think when will things settle down and get back to normal?

When faced with a profoundly disruptive change, people often go through a gamut of troubling emotions before they can support a change or cope adequately with its effects. Initial reactions may include feeling overwhelmed or denying that the change will occur or affect you personally. Once people get over their sense of denial, they often experience anger, fear, and sadness as they consider losses involved in the change. Only after facing their "negative" emotions, can most people begin to explore the opportunities of change and experience excitement about making the change happen.

The good news-- it is possible to get better at change. Here's a simple five-point plan for building your skills in dealing with change in work and in your life:

  • First, change your attitude and expectations about change. Look forward to new possibilities rather than dream nostalgically of the past. (As a baseball fan who still misses the Brooklyn Dodgers, I realize that this is easier said than done.) Learn to expect rather than fear change. Life would be deadly boring and personal growth would not be possible without change. In any case, constant change is not going to go away.

  • Second, learn more about how people adjust to change.Recognizing emotions that people experience during change can help you realize that you're going through a normal phase. It's natural for people to resist change since we prefer to be comfortable, to use skills we already have, and to enjoy current pleasures. To help overcome your own resistance, consider making a list of all the possible benefits and opportunities that may result from the change. Focusing on the opportunities can energize you and increase your momentum and optimism.

  • Third, identify the drawbacks or dangers you fear so you can minimize them and focus on the opportunities. Consider how you can best prepare for them. Do you need to ask questions so you understand the rationale for the change and what will be expected of you? Do you need to learn new skills or explore career opportunities inside or outside your organization? Are you too reliant on one or two people? Should you build a wider circle of relationships? Do you have money to fall back on or should you create a reserve of savings you can draw upon in an emergency?

  • Fourth, build your resilience - your capacity to deal with change while continuing to function effectively. Studies have shown that too much change can wear us down. Resilience helps us weather changes. Key aspects of resilience include optimism, an understanding of your own goals and values, a willingness to try new things, an ability to move forward even when you don't have all the information, and a willingness to get involved in change versus waiting passively for change to happen.

  • Fifth, explore and learn about how people deal successfully with change. Learn from others and your own experience. Consider taking a workshop or reading about change. Talk to other people who enjoy change and who quickly embrace new ways of doing things. Find out how they do it. Look over your own life, and recall previous changes you've mastered and what you did to get yourself through the change.

Confidence in your ability to adjust is a key part of change mastery. With newfound change mastery skills, you're much better prepared to face the future and to lead yourself and others through constant change. About the Author: Carol P. McCoy is president of McCoy Training and Development Resources, based in Falmouth, Maine. A published author and conference presenter, Dr. McCoy provides coaching and training to individuals and organizations to help them cope effectively with change.

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