Change, even positive change, is hard for people to embrace. It’s a shift away from what they do and how they think; and, more importantly, it’s a shift away from who they are.
A colleague and I had just finished our coaching work for a client leadership team. We briefly exchanged a few glances of frustration and exhaustion that spoke volumes about our earlier experience. We then just sat on a hotel lobby sofa for about 20 minutes in pristine silence. Eventually, my colleague said, “Solving problems is fun. Solving the same problem over and over again is….” He then trailed off.
I filled the silence by saying, “Agony.” We both sat back and rested another 15 minutes before climbing to our feet and stumbling to a restaurant. We felt as though we’d been trampled by a herd of buffalo.
At dinner we discussed the experiences of the day. The pre-work was fine. The agenda was solid. The materials were relevant. The facilitation was good enough. So what was so agonizing about workshop?
Resistance to change. That’s what. My colleague and I were battling the enormous and well-fortified internal defense mechanisms of our clients. We were fighting ghosts and shadows. Every time we attempted addressing an issue that they raised, we then had to defend their point against a rash of their own contradictory and conflicting viewpoints. It felt like the type of horrifying nightmare a person has the night before a debate club competition. The basis of the argument was changing, again and again, because the clients were so internally confused about what to think.
Although it sure felt like it, they weren’t playing games with us. They were struggling with change.
Author Robert Quinn got it right when he said the following: “Most of us build our identity around our knowledge and competence in employing certain known techniques or abilities. Make a deep change involves abandoning both and ‘walking naked into the land of uncertainty.’”
What a statement.
And for the vast, vast majority of people, this is exactly how significant change feels—awkward, disorienting, and exposed. Most people see change—especially positive change—as something that folks perceive as good and worth doing, as though the intellect dictates reactions. They are wrong. Change, even positive change, is hard for people to embrace. It’s a shift away from what they do and how they think; and, more importantly, it’s a shift away from who they are.
Who somebody is relates to identity, and identity overrules logic. It’s the reason that most good ideas don’t change people’s behavior. There are thousands of books and online course available, right now, that can change people’s lives for the better. There’s no shortage of incredible ideas.
But having access to good ideas doesn’t mean that people will “walk naked into the land of uncertainty.” This takes courage.
Stepping into change requires a reconciliation between the old and the new. Nobody, no matter what the circumstance, completely transforms as a person when going through change. It’s not a 100% shift. Some parts of a person endure. It’s the way things have to be.
But some things change and change dramatically. It’s the reconciliation process that’s so daunting.
For me, I’ve changed on an enormous scale throughout the course of my life, and not just the growing up part. I’ve gone from being a very reserved, diffident person to being a much more open and expressive individual. I’ve gone from being passive in my approach to business to being active. I’ve gone from feeling pessimistic about opportunity to feeling much more optimistic.
Yet, deep down, parts of me feel the same as they have my entire life. From my earliest memories, around age three, the things I notice and pay attention to are the same. The curiosity I have for people and relationships remains the same.
Every time I entered into a meaningful change opportunity in my life, I was confronted by the real prospect of losing myself, saying good-bye to who I was. It was, and continues to be, the single greatest fear I have. I can handle financial ups and downs, conflict with loved ones and friends, and high-stakes business opportunities.
People who work through significant change face serious ambiguity. They risk losing who they are for the prospect of something better. It’s a primal issue.
My clients in the above workshop were confronted with an existential crisis. They didn’t know who they were anymore. They could draft business plans, complete financial models, write inspirational speeches—but when they looked in the mirror, they didn’t know what they saw.
This disorientation led to weeks and months of stopping and starting, coming and going, and launching and pulling back. To outside observers, the situation seemed schizophrenic. Criticism was constant.
Yet, my brave clients were on the front lines of an enormous struggle. They were redefining who they were as people. Making the business changes was the easy part. Knowing who they were was hard.
Change is hard for some obvious and non-obvious reasons. People usually overvalue intellect and undervalue courage when it comes to these matters.
Next time you’re looking to make a significant change in your life, ask yourself the following: “How ready am I to redefine who I am.”
Photo credit: Flickr/Kristaps Bergfelds