By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

At various times in our lives, we’ve all suffered the slings and arrows of difficult change.

Maybe a move forced us to change schools and reluctantly leave dear friends behind. Maybe it was heading off to college. Love notwithstanding, maybe it involved adjusting to life with a spouse. Maybe it was the arrival of a new baby.

In each case, the change opened us up to new adventures and growth. In many cases, the change was one we actually chose to make. But whether we chose the change or it imposed itself on us, we can look back and see that it involved some difficulties.

Perhaps, too, the problems struck us as so overwhelming that ultimately we weren’t able to make the transition. Think of all your New Year’s resolutions — vows to change — that went by the wayside in a matter of days or weeks.

Yet, every leader in every context — be it work, home or in the various communities we inhabit — is at some point expected to be an agent of change. When that happens, our goal is to bring about some improvement. But for that to happen, we have to overcome and help others overcome those things which make change so difficult. 

That process begins by identifying and understanding the common barriers to successful change. The Lead Like Jesus movement has come up with seven of them.

 People feel awkward — we’re creatures of habit, some physical and some mental. In either case, when we try to do something new or different, we seldom do it well at the start.

 People feel alone — our awkwardness — and our reluctance to admit it — inspires the delusion that our struggles are unique. As we withdraw into ourselves and our difficulties, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy and really can end up enduring the change process alone.

 People focus on what they have to give up — we are more certain about what we are leaving behind than what awaits us ahead, so the losses weigh more heavily on us than any potential gains.

 People can only handle so much change — and each person’s capacity is different.

 People worry about resources — this is an especially troublesome factor with non-profits, where often the perception is that the pie is of a fixed size and there is only so much to go around. The notion that the change itself can grow a bigger pie and that new resources will emerge as a result of the process is often alien to any except entrepreneurial cultures.

 People are at different levels of readiness — some people are early adaptors, quick studies, insatiably curious or they crave adventure. Some people keep up with new developments in their field and look for opportunities to experiment with them. Others cling to what they currently know and do as if that’s all they can ever know or do. But if a change is to be successful, all of your team members must eventually get on board.

 People tend to revert to old behaviors — again, we are creatures of habit, and when the change process is long or hard, it’s so easy to go back to what we were doing. Sometimes the reversion is the result of a conscious choice, but often it’s just a mostly unconscious drift back to what we’re used to doing.

An effective leader recognizes these difficulties, stays attentive to how they are affecting each person on the team, and tries to help everyone cope. Here are four suggestions for leading a diverse team through a significant change process:

1. Acknowledge their pain rather than trying to sugar coat it. If people think you understand and sympathize with their difficulties, they won’t feel so alone as they cope — and they might be more open to requesting the assistance they need to make the transition.

2. Point to their progress wherever you can find it. In fact, think in terms of enjoying an early harvest by planning to pick some low-hanging fruit at the very start of the process. If you can, build in some early successes to give people greater hope of making a successful change. Then keep an eye peeled for more achievements. When people achieve milestones, celebrate! Draw attention to the successes and ask the people who achieved them to share the details — and their good feelings — with the rest of the team.

3. Encourage their continued efforts even while celebrating their successes. We call this process “incremental success experience.” Build on past achievements, however modest, to encourage greater efforts to larger successes.

4. Keep everyone’s eye on the prize that awaits your team at the end of the process. Even while you are “shrinking the change” by setting up small goals along the path, consistently point to the long-term goal and note how each incremental success is bringing the team ever closer to it. 

Copyright © 2010 Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute, 208 E. North St., Durand, IL 61024. Any part of this newsletter may be reproduced so long as there is full attribution, our web site is listed, and any electronic reproduction includes a link to our site:

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