“People don’t like change.” I perhaps hear this statement at least once a week. Regrettably, it perpetuates the thinking that people will try to avoid change. The reality is quite the opposite.
Change is an essential part of our living experience. We change to live. But we don’t live to be changed. When you understand this difference, you can use the stress of change as a potential energy source.
Hans Seyle originally defined stress in the 1930s. He identified it as a biological and psychological response or condition brought on by events outside of the person, such as a marriage, a divorce, getting a new job or losing a job.
Stress is often characterized in terms of “good” (eustress) and “bad” (dis-stress). This view of stress limits its potential as a catalyst for enabling change in your organization. To unlock your organization’s change energy you need to shift your thinking away from stress as an end state toward stress as an energy source. As energy, stress is needed to ignite and propel your change forward.
Viewed from yet another angle, it can be a spur for personal growth and enlightenment. Stress can be used as a justification to play the victim card, and it can also be the force that thrusts you forward into a better existence. Stress can be used as the motivation you choose to become numb through drugs, medication or alcohol, and it can also be the reason you are led to education, exercise and nutrition.
Successful Change Needs Stress
In his book Thinking for a Change, John Maxwell notes that all change feels awkward and uncomfortable, and if it doesn’t it probably isn’t really a change. Organizational change can only happen when people feel a strong disconnect between where the organization wants to be and where it is now.
It is the tension between the current state and the desired state that creates the stress necessary for change. At this critical point where new meets old you have the chance to excite people with the prospect of the new opportunities or paralyze them with the fear of uncertainty. It all depends on the beliefs your organization holds about change and the actions you take based on those beliefs.
Being under stress truly is an absolute growth-opportunity—none better. Rather than numb it or suppress it with drugs and alcohol, or run from it in denial or as a victim, why not use it as a catalyst for learning and change. During my life, my moments of intelligibility as well as my biggest achievements, individually and in business, demonstrated themselves just after the most stressful and painful times in my life. No matter how bad it can get, something good can always come from it. You just have to be open enough to see it through all the pain, misunderstanding or upset.
Enabling organizational change requires you to create enough stress to allow people to act on the need to let go of their current state without generating so much stress that they are immobilized with dis-stress.
Diane Dreher compared conflict to electricity in her book The Tao of Leadership. The same comparison could be made about change; like electricity, change can either light up your world or destroy it. It all depends on the appropriate and careful use of stress.
Here are a few tips to help you balance the stress to dis-stress continuum:
- Enable the time and opportunity for people to recognize the need for change.
- Encourage and guide people’s need to make the change meaningful for them.
- Enable active participation in the “creation of their destiny”.
- Talk about the change and its transition (especially) when you think you have nothing to talk about.
- Recognize and acknowledge the discomfort of the change process—support people’s journeys.
Using Stress as a Catalyst for Change
Profound organizational change unavoidably produces stress. Those who lead change often try to suppress stress in an effort to sustain positive energy and forward movement.
Nevertheless, attempting to squash stress is a mistake. Successful leaders actively use stress to help transform organizations. To turn stress into a catalyst for change, implement these four practices:
- Build a shared mission to hold the core group together;
- Leverage the power of dissident voices;
- Give the work back: let others resolve conflicts;
- Raise the heat to uncover conflicts that need to be addressed.
Recognizing that employee engagement can help build a deeper sense of purpose, your team can develop a one-of-a-kind strategy that encourages employees to spend four hours a month, during the business day, volunteering on creating change.
Stress may not be pleasurable, but it can be beneficial.