Category Archives: Guiding change

The Simple Kindness of Human Connection

caring-handsAfter my husband died last fall, my world changed. Undergoing and guiding change, both of which are central to my work as a leadership coach, suddenly took on new dimensions. I have new appreciation for the simple kindness of human connection.

One of the most powerful frameworks for helping us go through change comes from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on grieving. Kubler-Ross realized grief is a process of changing. Later, William Bridges made the connection between grieving for a lost loved one and making changes at work—losing a colleague, reorganizing work operations, reconfiguring offices space, or growing a company. Change interrupts the familiar patterns of work. Change involves loss: that is the central insight Bridges got from Kubler-Ross.

In this post I’ll share my reactions to what people say when they learn I’ve lost my beloved. I hope telling you what helps me will also help you help others who are going through change.

A simple acknowledgement of my loss is very helpful. Colleagues, neighbors, customer service people (for insurance, credit cards, tech support, etc.), and even townspeople have greeted me by saying, “I’m sorry about your loss.” Their simple human kindness says, “I have heard.” It acknowledges loss that is always in my mind and heavy on my heart. The kindly sentence is sincere, simple, and direct.

Other people’s well-intentioned reactions hurt or stir my anger. I have learned from books on grieving that these unhelpful responses are common.

Playing down the loss is not helpful. “Well, at least he didn’t suffer for long,” some people have said. A workplace version might be: “Come on, it’s just different office space, for goodness sake. No big deal.”

Comparing suffering is not helpful. “I lost my brother last year, so I know how you feel.” A workplace version might be: “Once I had to take on a second job role while keeping the one I had, so I know exactly what you are going through by starting over in a new job.”

Comparing suffering is similar to presuming to know how somebody else feels. “I lost my brother last year; I feel your pain,” someone said to me. A workplace version? “I know, you are shell shocked because you are brand new to the department. I feel your ‘overwhelm.’”

“You’re strong; I know you’ll make it” may also not help. The risk with this compliment is that it doesn’t allow the other person to also be vulnerable, raw, disoriented, off-balance and/or other natural responses to change. In many workplaces, strength and toughness are prized and rewarded; vulnerability is viewed as weakness. To not allow or even to “disappear” vulnerability drives underground the range of responses to loss that helps us get through it.

For me, something simple and direct, like, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m sorry for this hard time” is the most helpful. It says,

  • The loss is present and real.
  • We are connected.
  • Simple kindness matters, even for the well-trained customer service people who know they have to move on to address the reason for my call.
  • For people who are closer to me, simple human kindness opens a space for what else might arise, such as,  “And how are you doing today?” or “Can I help in some way?” or I might say, “Thanks. It’s the hardest time, ever.”

Speed Limits and Slow Living

railbed_1893My town recently lowered speed limits from thirty to twenty-five. Adjusting to a slower pace set me thinking about habits, change and slow living.

At first, driving more slowly was an unwanted constraint. Over time, my experience shifted. I brought the shift into clearer focus by reframing, a skill that is useful in coaching and conflict management. To reframe, we put a new frame around an experience in order to shift perception and try on a new reality. For the new speed limit, my new frame is, “I drive more thoughtfully.”

Reframing a negative experience may take effort and seem artificial. This time, however, reframing arose spontaneously from a new internal experience. I noticed myself paying closer attention to driving. As I drove along, I also noticed that spring was coming on, kids were walking to school and the street sweeper had wiped away the winter detritus. I enjoyed being part of the scene instead of racing by it.

Learning #1. Speed is limiting. Like you, I have projects and deadlines that make me speed. Oops, notice how the phrase “make me speed” attributes my behavior to external causes? I bet I have more choice about varying my pace, and I imagine you do, too. How can we deliberately and thoughtfully vary our pace throughout the day and work week?

Learning #2. Only after the town speed limit changed did I notice that driving fast was a habit. By circumventing choice-making, some habits helpfully guide our behavior and simplify life. Habitually pushing the speed limit is not this kind of habit. Pushing the speed limit took me away from being present to safety, responding to the weather, noticing my internal “weather conditions” and much else around and inside me.

Learning #3. Watch the rush: rushing to get there quickly, cover ground and get work done. “Watch the rush” suggests noticing any internal “high” like, “Wow, what a lot I did today!” “Good for me, I beat that deadline!” or even, “Aren’t I valuable. Look at all I do!”

Learning #4. Don’t rush to change. I am inviting us to heighten awareness before making any change. When we rush to change, in this case, hurrying to slow down, we miss information. We rush past “ah-hah’s” that would suggest new behavior to try on. The “ah-hahs” are also valuable because they propel and sustain motivation to change. This “notice more and don’t change anything” dynamic (called the paradoxical theory of change) is a way of thinking about change that is key in my coaching practice.

Learning #5. Learning takes practice. On a recent vacation to Lisbon, I noticed myself rushing around (again.) Over many days, I slowly slowed down. On the last day, I ambled along the riverfront watching fishermen catch blowfish. Even on vacation, I confuse accelerated output with quality results.

I learned to slow down my driving. When I went on vacation, I went back to my speeding habit. I need more practice. So, some tips for you and me.

  • Notice what rushing is like. How and where is the breathing? What is happening in muscles, head, trunk and limbs? Track thoughts. Try exaggerating any one thing, for example, shallow breathing, a tight jaw or a pattern of thought. What is that experience like?
  • Vary the pace of the work day. Take short breaks to get up and stretch.  Breathe slowly for a full minute, focusing only on the breath or on a pleasant experience or loved one.
  • Practice saying no. Start with oneself, saying no to the inner perfectionist or achiever who tempts us to agree to unrealistic tasks and deadlines. Negotiate with these inner drivers.

New Approach to Guiding Change

Inspired by Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, I found a new approach to guiding change: I created a checklist.

Organizational change is often a complex undertaking that takes place in an already complex system. As a surgeon and health reform thought leader, Gawande understands complexity. Think about an operating room. A team works under intense pressure on a patient whose body is complicated; there are both strict procedures and emergent challenges; systemic issues like the nurse-doctor hierarchy are entrenched; errors can cost lives. Sound in some ways like your work place?

Gawande shows that checklists have lots of appeal as a way to get complex processes right. They:

  • Make a “cognitive net” to catch gaps in knowledge, memory, and attention when individuals or teams are busy doing intense and complex work.
  • Identify critical decision points. Each decision point is reached by using process tools that go with the list item.
  • Are created from knowledge (how to do a surgical procedure); experience (how critical incidents have been handled in the past); input from many people (how various neighborhood Ebola response teams worked); hard data.
  • Teach and improve a whole organization, industry, or sector.

fish jumpingHow would I create a checklist for guiding change? There are so many theories and models of change that it is hard to wrap your arms around them. As I worked with clients and refined my MBA course in managing change, I searched, not for a “theory of everything,” but for a practical approach that would be deliberately eclectic, flexible, and also coherent. I wanted clients to avoid the mistakes I often see and that research verifies: failing to include the right people, not communicating enough with stakeholders, failing to anticipate obstacles, and neglecting to anchor change through skill building and new business processes.

Here are the first of eleven items on my checklist.
1. Have initiators firmed up the rationale for the change project, including timing and resources?
2. Have initiators evaluated the complexity and impact of the change?
3. Have initiators done stakeholder analysis in order to make three key decisions (3a-c on the checklist)?
4. Have initiators formed the change project team based on steps 1-3?

Like a Gawande checklist, the change checklist is built on a body of knowledge. For example, for #2, users need to understand what “complexity” and “impact” mean and how to evaluate these factors.

For each item, a set of process tools shows people “how to.” Clients choose the tool(s) they need in order to complete each checklist step. For #2, there is a complexity/impact grid, for instance. For #3 you can choose from several ways of doing a stakeholder analysis.

The checklist reminds you to:

  • Talk about each important step in a change project.
  • Thoughtfully choose the process tools you need.
  • Make decisions based on process tool results.

With the checklist, people realize that change management is a body of knowledge that can be grasped and learned. You do not make it up as you go along. You no longer manage change by following a leader whose experience may not be relevant to this change. Leadership for guiding change can come from anywhere in the organization. The checklist complements and “completes” what are primarily technical approaches to change, like Project Management and Quality Improvement. The checklist is marvelously suited for responding to complex situations because it is both step-wise and flexible.