When Change Hits “Upside the Head”

Change.  It’s a topic that provides much fodder for discussion among leaders.  We anticipate it; study it; plan for it; and, if we are smart (or lucky), we make it happen or respond to it with strength, a sense of purpose and a clear head.  Sounds pretty simple.

But of course, it’s not.  Sometimes change hits us “upside the head” and cares not whether we have had time to think about it or prepare for it.  It simply happens, rudely and without ceremony, leaving us grappling to make some sense of it all.

Yes, there are ways to mitigate the impact of such brutal changes but for the most part, they have a way of sending us into a tailspin and causing even that which was once so familiar to seem somehow foreign and out of sync with how we understand the world.

The trauma brought about by such change happens every day to countless people, people without contingency plans, or any idea how they are going to cope with what has happened to them.  And yet we do, cope I mean, under many conditions and through many challenges.

Having recently experienced an “upside the head” change myself, I am given to thinking about aspects of change that I perhaps did not give so much consideration to in the past. Here are a few of those thoughts:

  • Change is primarily an emotional and people-centred event

Here’s a story that, to me, illustrates that point.

In 2001, Jeffery W. Greenberg, Chairman of Marsh & McLennan Companies headquartered in New York, presided over a firm of 58,000 people worldwide.  1,127 of them worked in the World Trade Centre, some in Tower One and others in Tower Two.  Mr. Greenberg’s office was in Mid-town Manhattan.  From his window, he had a clear view of the towers and of the horror inflicted on those who went to work there on September 11th.

At the end of the reckoning, 295 of the company’s employees had lost their lives.  In the midst of the pain and disarray that was to ensue in the days, weeks and months following the attack, something emerged that I think is significant.

While there were lessons to be learned about executing business disaster recovery plans and the positioning of Data Centres and telecommunications systems, Mr. Greenberg’s primary observations were less about that and more about the people, their courage, resilience and determination to pick up the pieces and move on.

This story suggests to me that successfully moving through horrendous change events relies more heavily on the preservation of emotional health than we might otherwise think.   The irony  is that Mr Greenberg does not enjoy a reputation associated with good leadership but perhaps at this particular time, he may have got it right.

  • During times of drastic change, people are often given far less credit for having resilience than they deserve

It is tempting, I think, for leaders to assume that because a change is frightening, people will fall apart and be unable to participate in working toward a new normal without constant hand holding and caretaking. I believe though, that it is during such frightening times that we each have the potential to discover inner stores of strength and courage that might never have previously been tested.

While, firm structures are imperative during times of uncertainty, so is faith in peoples’ ability to adapt and contribute to bringing about a new order of things.

  • “Upside the Head” kinds of Change bring out the best in most people.

It would be naïve of me to suggest that when disaster strikes, there won’t be some who will take advantage of it for personal gain, or fail to rise to the occasion, but for the most part, people are amazingly supportive of one another during times of trouble.  Even if, in ordinary circumstances, they spend time bickering, there is something galvanizing about life-changing, scary events that brings out the best in most of us.

I have lately been reminded of this and have, along with my husband, been the recipient of great kindness and active support from many good people.

For leaders, it is something to perhaps remember…and trust.

  • Recovery requires us to dig deep and see the funny side of things.

It’s hard to even think of laughing when your world has been turned upside down.  After all, the experience of being caught in a chaotic and foreign situation is far from funny. But, in my experience, there is always something ironic or just downright comical about every situation.

My husband had a stroke, a very serious one.  It has scared us both, badly. But, for some reason, along with the crying (and there has been some of that), there has been a fair amount of laughter too.

I just think that, sometimes reverence can be overrated and looking at the lighter side of life, even if it seems a bit out of place, has a way of lifting the load for a time. It is even possible that through a recovery period when the going is hard, laughter is indeed a very potent medicine.

Do you have an “upside the head” story? Want to share it?  One of the things I learned is that I’m tougher than I thought I was.  What about you? What did you learn?

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10 Comments

Filed under Change Management, Leading Change, Learning, Uncategorized

10 responses to “When Change Hits “Upside the Head”

  1. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for When Change Hits “Upside the Head” « You’re Not the Boss of Me [gwynteatro.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com

  2. Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

    http://blog.threestarleadership.com/2009/10/21/102109-midweek-look-at-the-independent-business-blogs.aspx

    Wally Bock

  3. One of my “Upside the head” moments came when I lost my father to a stroke. I cried a lot for about a week but my family has never been big on reverence and cracked some jokes that probably sounded pretty awful to outsiders, just to take the edge off. Then I moved out of state within 2 months and had too much to think about to be too gloomy. I wasn’t prepared for the feelings that washed over me on the first anniversary of his death. I wasn’t even thinking about it, hadn’t consciously noticed what date it was. But I suddenly started to cry as if I had lost him all over again.

    I learned that your mind can throw stuff at you pretty unexpectedly after a traumatic event. Now I pay attention when something like this occurs so I will be prepared to deal with those surprising feelings and thoughts that can occur so long after the event is over.

    I think in our careers the same thing can happen. You get fired or laid off unexpectedly. You are fine for awhile then suddenly it all comes crashing down. You need to learn that just because you are OK now, you will not necessarily stay that way and be prepared to deal with it when it comes.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jody,

      Thanks for sharing your story. I think you make a very good point too. It brings to mind a kind of emotional boomerang that hits you in the head and then goes off somewhere only to come back and do it again when you least expect it.

      These life changing events become part of us forever and when the memory of them comes calling, so do the laughter, and the tears, that go along with them. So, as you say, just understanding that and being prepared, helps.

      And by the way, I’m very sorry for your loss.

      Gwyn

  4. Fabulous! It is inspiring to read the insight you generated from your recent tragedy. Thanks for sharing your words of wisdom.

  5. I’d like to echo Susan’s words, Gwyn. So wonderful to see you again, and thank you for sharing your perspectives with us.

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