In business as in life, there is no escaping that change is a constant. Sometimes shifts arrive sporadically. In the 12 months since March 2020, change has felt more like a relentless series of waves beating the shoreline. Even as many of us have stuck close to home or put aspects of our lives on hold in the face of COVID-19, the world around us feels like it’s never stopped moving.
Putting aside the extraordinary events of 2020, stasis is still rarely the norm. Yet that does not make the fact of change, or the challenges of managing through it, any easier. It’s a subject that has launched a thousand Harvard Business Review articles.
Why is leading through change so tough? The practicalities present one challenge. There are tangible, operational efforts to plan and execute. While those kinds of details can tie up a lion’s share of time, leaders would be advised to pay even greater attention to the psychological and emotional landscapes of big transitions. This includes resisting the impulse to rush what is a normal and necessary process for ourselves and our people – traveling across the “arc” of a change.
This arc of change is a journey that starts with the first shock of recognition that a shift is imminent. It continues through to the moment when you can inhabit a “new norm.” You may like it or not; accept it or not. But like a ball tossed in a game of catch, the arc is complete when you land in a place where a change feels less alien and more like everyday reality.
Being aware of and intentional about the arc of change means recognizing some simple truths:
Change needs time. For those leading others through periods of major transition, it’s easy to forget that you will always be “ahead of the curve,” particularly on an emotional level. You will necessarily know things before others. You will sit with that knowledge, absorb it and, over time, imbue it with your own meaning and understanding. That time is a gift, moving you forward on the arc. The challenge comes when you lose sight of that process and, in turn, lose empathy for those who are traveling behind.
Change is asynchronous, especially in how it is experienced and expressed within groups. Leaders cannot expect members of their teams to be on the same page at the same moment. Some individuals will take quickly to a new norm or, in the case of 2020 and 2021, the continuous shifts of a rolling reality. Others will require a lot more time to get to that same spot on the curve. Leaders open the door to personal frustration and significant organizational missteps when they lose patience with this natural process.
Change feels very different depending upon where you are on the arc. Those first moments of understanding that a transition is coming (or is already underway) tend to hit us right at our emotional core. Our rational minds may understand it in practical terms. But our hearts (and nervous systems) are simply not there yet. Leaders should assume that many feelings, fears and questions are moving just below the surface. And they should not be surprised if those feelings break out in ways that may not obviously connect to the issue at hand.
Change is as much emotional as it is rational, if not more so. This should not surprise us. Yet we can sometimes lead as if all of our carefully crafted message points, PowerPoint decks or flowcharts should settle the case. Leaders can find themselves indulging in us-versus-them thinking along the lines of “Why don’t they get this?” or “Why is this still an issue?” When we allow ourselves to climb up on that kind of high horse, we become blind to how a given change is actually working through the system.
Visual metaphors are powerful in helping us to experience the world differently. In imaging an arc of change, leaders can more readily see the “locations” of their people as they assimilate to new realities over time. This will help them avoid losing touch with the basic fact that change is a journey – one that can be helped along, but never rushed or eliminated.