These four words bring me back to my childhood in Canada, watching Lost in Space. I loved how Will Robinson had his robot to warn him of impending danger as he navigated the strange worlds he found himself in. We have our limbic system, and specifically our amygdala, to do the same. It does a great job when danger in the form of physical threats arises in our lives. And like Will’s robot, it often misconstrues perfectly safe, but uncertain situations, such as change, as threatening ones.
This points to both the gift and the cross we bear as humans: our ability to make stuff up. We excel in doing that. On a good day we might dream up smart phones, spaceships that land on the moon, Velcro or margaritas. On a bad day we dream stuff up that isn’t true and then live our lives according to our own mis-imagined reality. “I’m not X enough.” Or “I’m too X.” Or “I could never do that.” Or… the list is endless.
Why does this matter now?
In many countries, people are emerging from a period of extended lockdowns and pandemic restrictions. That brings change. For change read uncertainty, new complexities and ambiguity. People will return to a physical workplace and at the very least, there will be a significant rise in hybrid working. It seems pretty straightforward, but the thing is we will all make stuff up about what the change will be and in particular, what it’s impact on us will be.
Whereas the change event itself is often going to be straightforward, our psychological relationship to the change is often not as simple. When things change, our limbic system often makes up what it believes will be the impact of the change and conducts a quick assessment of our ability to cope with that change, with the resources available to us.
William Bridges, the American organisational change consultant, calls our psychological response to change transition. He suggests that if change feels beyond our ability to adapt successfully during times of transition, we are often consumed by reacting to threats to our sense of self. We may fear the loss of:
- Routines and structure
- Personal Future
- Meaningful Work
- Control of Destiny
- Personal Identity
In order to help people successfully navigate change, we need to help them get clearer on two questions, and to get curious about a third:
1. What is changing?
2. What will actually be different because of the change?
Once you have clarified the first two questions, you need to get curious, because the “making up” and storytelling is about to rear its head.
3. Who’s going to lose what?
What has each person in your team made up about what they might lose as a result of the proposed change? This is where leading from behind by asking open, searching questions from a place of curiosity will serve you and those you lead. Some of the people in your team may not even be aware of the assumptions they have made or the narrative in their mind that is already running their behaviour. By engaging, you build trust and you allow them to distinguish what is not real and what is, which enables you to better support them to build their resilience and to deal with the complexity of the new circumstances in which they find themselves.
Like Will Robinson, we all have a robot inside of us who seeks to protect us by shouting “Danger Connor McDonough, danger” when change and uncertainty arise. An important part of our role as leaders is to support our people to make the successful transition from what was to what will be. And that means helping them to distinguish what can impact them from what they only imagine.
Contact us to help support your leaders as they navigate change and the transition to a hybrid workplace.