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 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
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 significant emerged.
In telling his story, Mr. Greenberg’s primary observations were not about executing business disaster recovery plans or repositioning Data Centres and telecommunications systems but about the people in his organization; their courage, resilience and determination to pick up the pieces and move on.
This suggests to me that successfully moving through horrendous change events relies more heavily on the preservation of emotional health than we might otherwise think. It reinforces, at least for me, that building an organization with a strong sense of purpose, widely shared values and an engaged workforce is not a faddish notion. It is a business imperative.
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 been tested.
While, firm structures are important 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.
For leaders, it is something to perhaps remember…and to 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 scared us both, badly. But, for some reason, along with the crying (and there was some of that), there was also 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.
That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?
Note: A revised version of a post originally published in 2009