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Walking on the Quicksand of Change©
By Sandra Jones Campbell   Printer Friendly Version

"...in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes."
Benjamin Franklin, 1789

If Franklin were alive today he would revise this quotable to say, "...in this world nothing is certain but death, taxes and change." Daryl Conner suggests in his book, Managing at the Speed of Change, that change is occurring at exponential rates, yet the solutions have a shorter and shorter shelf life. There is an increased rate, volume and complexity of change. Practically speaking this means that the amount of change which occurred over fifty years during our grandparents' era is now occurring about every five years. And these changes are taking place in every area of our lives from professional to personal to social.

Naturally, there are positive and negative changes. Sometimes a negative one turns out positive and vice versa. Often a seemingly negative one can become positive by simply "changing" our perception!

Any change, whether viewed positively or negatively, results in a certain degree of loss, an element of the unknown. Not surprisingly, it is often the fear of the unknown and the attendant losses that create the most anxiety regarding change.

For example, at first blush a promotion is typically seen as a positive change. However, an upgraded title and income may come with increased responsibilities, loss of or change in colleague relationships, a move to another part of the building or even country. Often there are new individuals and groups with which to interact and new skills to be learned. One change, then, frequently begets many more.

How change is perceived and managed often feels as if one is walking on quicksand, a "…soft, shifting mass that yields easily to pressure and tends to suck down any object resting on its surface" (American Heritage Dictionary). Walking on the quicksand of change means finding ways not to be dragged down, bogged down or sucked into negativism or reactionary behaviors. For every change the first question is: Can I live with this change?

  • If "No," go to Plan A and decide how to get out of the situation.
  • If "Yes," go to Plan B and decide how to best manage the change.

There are several levels of managing change within the workplace. Managers or executives will be expected to lead others through the change process, i.e., help others manage the change. Everyone, however, must take charge of their own reaction to change, i.e., self-manage. It is the latter level that this article will address.

Some individuals are like Dirty Harry-a good change, any change, makes their day! They thrive on and strive for change. Others are a bit hesitant but generally take it in stride and look on the bright side. Another group is hesitant and looks on the negative side while a final group tends to be both negative and reactionary. Regardless of the group into which you fit, you can walk on the quicksand of change with the following four-step process.

To deal effectively with change one must increase skills, develop ability. This includes learning about change as a process, understanding the phases, causes and various reactions to change. It also requires understanding that change management is largely working through the grief process. With change comes concomitant losses. These losses must be grieved in order to embrace the positive aspects of change.

Workers are typically shocked when they first hear of a merger, buyout, shutdown or layoff. This initial period of "being told" or "finding out" often brings responses such as, "It can't be true...No!...This isn't happening." This shock phase creates a numbness, allowing one to absorb the news. During this disbelief stage one is likely to function mechanically and in a daze.

The working phase means you are dealing with the loss and change in everyday ways and your feelings about the change begin to surface. The real impact begins to set in and feelings like anger, sadness, depression and even wonder may arise.

Eventually, resolution occurs when you incorporate the changes and losses into your life. You accept and acknowledge what has occurred and are ready to "get on the bandwagon," to accommodate the change and even make it into something positive.

As you move through the working phase and into the resolution phase, developing your ability may also include learning new skills such as cross-training, attending seminars, workshops or returning to school. In addition, it may include getting help and support from family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, counselors, support groups or spiritual guidance. A visit to your EAP office may make a world of difference.

In the real estate world the three most important things are said to be location, location, location. In walking on the quicksand of change they are attitude, attitude, attitude! Take charge of your attitude and you'll take charge of change!

Studies on change, stress and coping show that individuals who believe they can control the outcomes of their experiences, who have an internal locus of control, cope better than those who feel outcomes are controlled from outside forces (external locus of control). They choose to be victors not victims. They do not make excuses, but rather assume responsibility for their actions, both positive and negative. If they can't change the change, they change their reaction to it. They are masters at living the Serenity Prayer.

To walk on the quicksand of change requires a second step, changing from thinking about the negatives and the uncontrollable to focusing on the positives and that which can be controlled. Change how you think and you can change how you feel (and therefore respond). A negative attitude is a lot like a flat tire, you've got to change it to get anywhere!

Get out four sheets of paper. Write at the top of each: "Positives." On one page write all the positives you can about your job; on another, all the positives about your life in general; on a third, things you like about yourself and on the fourth, positive things about the changes with which you are dealing. Every time you start thinking negatively, simply refocus on one of these positives. Be sure to add to these positive lists as often as possible and say, "thank you" every day for the good that is in your life.

At the end of every day, make a list of the things you are worried about, that didn't get finished, that upset you, then put them in your desk drawer. Lock the drawer and tell the worries to "Stay!" Believe me, they'll be there in the morning, why take them home at night?

Step number three, taking action, is as important as the first two. Having a positive attitude and developing abilities only go so far. Putting them into action counts. Participate in or initiate committees, get involved in the change. Help make it happen. Communicate regularly with colleagues, staff, higher-ups.

Visualizing yourself in control of the change process and seeing yourself as a winner are both helpful actions. Whatever you think is most likely to happen is most likely to happen-make it positive! From Olympians to cancer survivors, visualization is used to win gold medals and to beat cancer.

Affirmations are another action to help walk on the quicksand of change. These are the hopes, goals, wishes you have with regard to the change. Write them, say them, record them on audio tapes. Use them every day. Put them on your calendar or post-it notes. Use the first person, active voice-"I am..." instead of "I will" to connote that you are in charge now, not just that you hope to be. This positive self-talk has been found to improve performance for dart-throwers. If it helps them, think what it might do for dealing with change!

A final step for walking on the quicksand of change involves making allowances for yourself and others who are experiencing change. Adjusting your attitude, developing abilities and taking action all take time. Allow yourself and others the needed time. Set realistic expectations. Be kind to yourself. Be patient.

Allowances include congratulating yourself and others as you move through the process. Celebrate the milestones. Awards and rewards are never more important than during the throes of change.

Allow for flexibility-so, you had hoped to have the computer system up and running with all users trained within three months. If it takes six months to do it correctly, allow for the detour. Also allow for mistakes and learn from them. Mistakes are not failures unless you fail to learn from them.

Allow others to help. When someone offers to help, say "Yes, thank you." If no one is offering, don't be shy about asking. Supporting each other improves teamwork and facilitates the change.

Allow for a "Pity Party." Sometimes we need to collectively complain about the change. It is hard to be upbeat all the time. Allowing the expression of grief may help you and other employees let go and move on. A "Pity Party" or "From the Pits to the Peak Party" may be just the ticket. Bring in junk food, have a dress down day or better yet, black, blue or brown dress day, Then have a party where grousing is allowed.

Decorate the tables with toilet paper. Ask everyone to write their irritations on the TP, then collectively FLUSH IT DOWN THE TOILET!! This symbolic gesture goes a long way. Be sure to set limits on how long the party lasts so that negativism doesn't creep back.

The use of TP brings up another very important allowance and that is the use of humor. Don't just allow for it, but encourage the use of positive humor in dealing with change. A laugh improves everything from health to productivity and profits.

Change is constant. We must learn to deal with it positively or we will sink in its shifting sands. We don't have to be super human, but we do have to increase our ability, improve our attitude, take action and make allowances-just four steps to walk on the quicksand of change.

© 2000. This material is copyrighted. Reproduction or transmittal in any form without the written permission of the author, Sandra Jones Campbell, Ph.D. is prohibited.

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