7 minutes reading time (1411 words)

Leading Change: Brownies, Boulevard Trees and an Old Office Chair


I sat with the others, waiting for the meeting to start. Our leader was checking people in, each taking their turn on the scale after removing belts and accessories -- anything that might help that result look better. When we were all settled in, she began the meeting, asking if anyone had questions or concerns we needed to discuss right away. Someone behind me raised their hand. "I don't think I can do this," she said. "On this program I can't eat a pan of brownies anymore."

We were in a weight loss group. Eating a pan of brownies in one sitting was not in her best interest if her goal was to lose weight. But that pan of brownies was part of who she had been, how she saw herself. Saying goodbye to something you enjoy for any reason, even if technically bad for you, is harder than it sounds. She was hurting, grieving, as silly and illogical as that may sound.

If you do a search on keywords around change --- like change management or leading change, somewhere in your results will be a link to a change management model. Typical models have specific steps, logical and linear. I have yet to find a business model that lists or focuses on "grief" as part of the human process of change. That's where leaders get it wrong.  We conveniently forget that change is very personal.

My husband and I moved last year. We made the decision together to buy the new place and sell the old, kicking off a process of sorting, tossing, re-purposing and packing. I love our new place, but months after leaving the old one I was still grieving. I missed being in the city, our old pizza joint, and the way the boulevard trees arched over our street. We had replaced kitchen appliances with new and I loved that refrigerator. I had a special connection to that old house because I bought it for myself after my divorce. Letting it go was both easy and hard, not because of the house -- not about the thing, but about me.

Changes at work can feel big, too -- even the small ones. It took months for a prior employer to fully implement a forklift safety policy that required wearing safety belts and sounding horns through doorways. The seasoned forklift drivers were offended. They complained of the time it would take to buckle and unbuckle. They worried about getting fired for forgetting to use the horn and insisted that productivity would decline. The forklift trainers did not want to change their process. They did not see the point.

Today, seat belt use on the forklift is normal, natural, part of the job. It's odd somehow to think the forklift drivers had to grieve the "old days" when no seat belts were required. If you ask the forklift drivers about the change-over to the new rules, they won't remember how hard they pushed back. They'd say I am exaggerating. But I've seen similar reactions to checklists, quality plans, standard work -- even a new tool or machine for getting work done. I've even seen someone refuse a new chair for their workspace when the old chair was covered in dirt and duct tape. He didn't want to let it go.

It doesn't help that we are wired for comfort. Our primal brains don't know the difference between emotional pain and physical pain and acts the same for both -- hence the instant fight or flight response when change is introduced. The bigger our personal identification with the "old way" (or the old chair), the more difficult the transition to identifying with the "new way" -- even if we were in on the decision to transition.

My coach taught me that "grief" works like a bucket. We all have some capacity to manage our grief. But when the bucket fills up, the emotions spill out. Some life changes fill the bucket faster. Sometimes we don't know the bucket is full until some small thing tops it off, and we over-react. Not all change is unwelcome. That said, even when our reaction to change is "it's about time," our humanness is still with us. The grief bucket gets a new drop, though small, as we let go of the old and embrace our new "I am."

As awkward and unsettling as it can be to sit with someone grieving the loss of a loved one, try to imagine being there for someone sick over a pan of brownies. Or a seat belt. Or a checklist. This is when leaders say, "If I have to be sensitive to everyone's feelings then we'll never get anything done."

Change is different for everyone. None of us have had the same experiences, developed the exact same beliefs or values, or react the same way to changes. We don't even have the same feelings about the subject of feelings. As a leader, if you want to get better at leading and managing change, start with self-awareness. Acknowledge your own feelings and be with them. If you can acknowledge and be with your own feelings, you are more equipped to handle situations when others have feelings. We are all having them, like it or not. My most productive days are fueled by feelings, and not always the upbeat, positive, acceptable kind. We don't have feelings about what we don't care about.

I worked with a young woman who was struggling with interviews. She would get so nervous that she would cry. Big, alligator tears. She cried telling me about crying in interviews. Her nervousness was caused by self-esteem questions -- fears of not being "good enough" for the role or the company. She had an important interview coming up and wanted not to cry. We both knew she would. She needed a strategy. I told her to tell the truth: they were nervous and excited tears because she cared about the job and wanted to do well in the interview. As predicted, she teared up before the interviewers had a chance to ask the first question. She apologized for her tears, but claimed them as part of her passion for the new position, as well as an expression of love for the people she was now working with and would be leaving. Claiming her feelings helped. She regained her composure and performed well in the interview. When the position was offered, she accepted.

It perplexes me when leaders ask employees to be engaged and involved in their work, but then tell them to leave their feelings at home.  Feelings offer information about who we have been, as well as who we are becoming. They offer an opportunity to learn about ourselves, to examine what is important, and to highlight gaps in our character.  Grief is a normal, ongoing, human process that has a lot to show us about ourselves.

I once had a manager tell me I should not have feelings for the people I work with in case they let me down and I had to let them go.  True, it broke my heart when I had to let people go that I cared about.  But as author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in "Eat, Pray, Love, "This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means you have tried for something." 

People laughed that day when she confessed about the brownies. You should have seen the looks she got. The meeting leader did her best to control her own reaction, to show empathy, and to help the woman with logic and reason. But I never saw the woman there again. I don't know if she found another meeting -- or if she quit and accepted she prefers to be a person who enjoys a pan of brownies. I do know it takes courage to admit vulnerability, to show our true feelings to others, and rejection can be brutal. It's like handing someone a gift to someone who says they care about you and having them hand it back to you with disdain.

Feelings are not inherently bad, and in fact, can be the most important information someone gives you as a leader. You can learn to welcome them, even cherish them. It might take some practice, but it will take your leadership to a new level.  There will always be risk that your heart will be broken.  But at least you will have tried for something.

Leadership, Character, and the "Man in the Mirror"
Change and the Troublesome Employee, part 3

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Tuesday, 02 June 2020