Posted by: genevievetaylor | August 14, 2008

Change. The Long & Short of it. (Part 1 of 4)


Death of a Good Woman

It has been several weeks since I have last posted. For good reason – summer work travel notwithstanding, my grandmother, Donna Brown, passed away suddenly on July 27. She had been showing her age – 78 – for the last few months, but was such a delight to be around, with hearty laughter, irreverent jokes, great stories, and the best hugs, that we only noticed it vaguely. In retrospect, we had had to help her down steps more and more; she couldn’t walk very far; she fell for the first time several weeks before; she was out of breath quite often. I think the first real sign of her age was her pacemaker, implanted a couple of years ago; and at the end, that artificial heart was all that held her together. Until that too couldn’t quite do the job; she slipped away that Sunday around 9:30 pm, her family singing her Amazing Grace.

Change. Whether it is in your family, in your team, in your organization, the psychological ramifications of change are powerful, subtle, and themselves temper a person, as much as the event itself.

We have all been riding, as the days have gone by, the roller coaster of change. When I first received the phone call that she was in the hospital, I had every belief that she would end up fine. I found out later that my cousin Kenny, who had sent Grandma to the hospital via ambulance earlier that day, also thought she would get better.

Then, that Sunday, after hours in the Intensive Care Unit, and for a variety of health reasons, it became obvious that she wasn’t getting any better, and never would, and the decision was made to put her on comfort care. That conversation was challenging – many of us were grieving, some were facing anxiety, a couple of us were in denial, and angry that the family was not doing more to save her.

The Process of Transition

The Process of Transition

I have to admit I felt a bit of relief when that particular decision was finally made – I cringed to think that she would end up a vegetable; and I hated the idea of her being in real pain. I found myself unexpectedly glad that it was all happening in the space of 24 hours; and Immediately upon having these thoughts, I experienced immediate and shocking guilt. And then back to sadness as the reality of the situation sank in. This woman, who was such a dear and important part of my life and childhood, was leaving her body.

The Process of Transition

This has been a challenging couple of years in my family – Grandma was the third person in our close circle who had passed on in the last 18 months. As a result, I have gotten more and more accustomed to managing change – I have come to expect the wave of emotions sweeping myself and those around me; I have started to look for the joy in the situation, as there always is; I have been able to help others accept what is happening as well. As the graphic above makes obvious, it is very possible to get “derailed” from the natural process of change, into denial or hostility. Even more common is to get “stuck” in a certain feeling – the nervous feeling of guilt that never quite goes away; the fear or anxiety around the future; the depression. The model described above is a take-off from Dr. Kubler-Ross’ work on grief and transition; she wrote her book On Death and Dying in the 1970s, and her thinking was an enormous contribution to understanding transition and change of all types.

Change in the Organization.
As leaders, it is important to understand the process of transition, and how it applies to the company as a whole. While useful, the process is not nearly as neat as described in the model above; people may experience only pieces of the cycle. They may get stuck, they may move rapidly all the way through. There may be several iterations, as multiple levels of what the change really implies sinks in. They may experience some, not all of the stages.
A leader who is aware of the possible psychological impacts of change will be looking for them. They will meet people “where they are at” – accepting that the likelihood of an impact is high, to be expected, and not in itself too worrying – unless someone gets stuck. By not attempting to change them instantaneously towards acceptance (through tactics like “forcing,” “selling,” etc.) they leave open the opportunity for that person to make the transition themselves, and thus integrate it fully. Strong-armed tactics can actually damage the trust and respect a staff member has for its leader.
To protect herself and the organization must make options clear for those who may not wish to accept the change, and may need to provide resources, psychological or otherwise, as people work through a transition. An organization must keep moving, and can only “wait” so long for its members to catch up. A change may mean a realignment of values; in that process, the change may spur other changes, in terms of who wants to stay, and who doesn’t. A savvy leader heads into that “ready to ride the roller coaster” to the other end.
As Peter Drucker so aptly puts it:

Society, community, family are all conserving institutions. They try to maintain stability, and to prevent, or at least to slow down, change. But the organization of the post-capitalist society of organizations is a destabilizer. Because its function is to put knowledge to work — on tools, processes, and products; on work; on knowledge itself — it must be organized for constant change.

Next entry, we will talk more about how to move from simply managing change to surfing change, cowabunga-style.

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