As our current way of living comes under increasing threat of change, reframing your attitude is not only helpful, it becomes a psychological necessity for human flourishing.The
pace of change is increasing in today’s business world. Words like VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), agility, and transformation are used by most organisations. And yet, change remains difficult for individuals. Why?
While undergoing change, people tend to not jump from endings to new beginnings. The endings involve the need to let go. When changing a behaviour, letting go can relate to the loss of the comfortable and the routine. The change may involve some elements of loss, denial, anger, grief, and pain. The important aspect is to remain conscious that these are normal feelings during this stage.
Research by Nobel Prize winners Dr Daniel Kahneman and Dr Amos Tversky shows that people are far more motivated to avoid a loss than to achieve a potential gain. Dr Kahneman sees loss aversion as a part of behavioural economics, whereby people are disproportionately influenced by a fear of feeling regret and will often forgo benefits to avoid even a small risk of feeling that they have failed. 1 However, it is possible to override this natural fear and train your mind to embrace the pain for the gain it will eventually deliver. Acknowledging and expressing your feelings of loss reduces emotional levels in the amygdala. This makes it easier for you to let go and move on. Therefore, it is vital to create spaces for digesting and expressing your emotions so that they do not remain bottled up inside.
If you stay in the endings stage, it becomes harder to move ahead to a new state of growth. When you let go of an old habit or an old way of thinking, you release energy and create space for something new. A cup that is full cannot contain any more liquid. Emptying the vessel avails space. Movement and flow are vital life forces where things can flourish.
“Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward,” noted Mr C.S. Lewis. The visual imagery of the monkey bars and change is a powerful one. You must first reach up and place both hands on the first rung. If you just remain where you are, your arms will eventually tire and you will drop off the bars. Status quo is not an option. Just as in life, nothing stays the same. We are either growing or decaying. In order to move forward, you have to let go with one hand and reach for the second rung. As you do this, there is a risk that you may not make it. However, you cannot move ahead without confronting the risk and uncertainty. Once your first hand reaches the second rung, you need to let go of the first rung with your other hand in order to swing ahead.
Otherwise, you risk getting stuck between the first and second rung. It takes plenty of energy to stay hanging in one place. Moving forward releases productive energy. You can progress too by straddling yourself for a short time between rungs, and having the courage to let go and reach for the next rung with one hand.
One does not arrive at the new state immediately after letting go. There is a stage of confusion where the unknown remains unknown and the uncertainty can be upsetting. Your brain can deal with good news and it can deal with bad news. What the brain finds most difficult is uncertainty, a sense of not knowing. A sense of uncertainty about the future and feeling out of control both generate strong limbic system responses whereby an individual may long for what was and therefore, retreats to the safety of the known and comfortable as a self-defense mechanism. However, it is important to remember that feelings of discomfort are also signals of growth. They are positive signs that you are evolving and growing. Growth is uncomfortable, even painful, as you leave behind the familiar to take on the uncertainties of the future.
How does a lobster get bigger? As the lobster grows, it starts pressing up against the limiting confines of its shell. To get bigger, it needs to find a safe place, a secure base, where it can shed its shell without fear of being eaten and grow a new and larger shell. The lobster sheds its shell when it starts to feel restricted and uncomfortable. When you start to feel uncomfortable, instead of staying as you are, find a secure base who can support you in your growth and then walk into that feeling of discomfort with confidence and optimism, in the knowledge that you are making progress.
“Chaos is actually a fertile state, a creative state, a state of pure energy and great potential,” said Dr William Bridges, author of The Way of Transition. 2 Change is about dealing with transitions successfully. We all face transitions in our lives as a natural part of ageing. And all transitions involve some kind of loss. They not only arise due to negative events, but as a result of positive changes, such as your child leaving home for university, your receiving a promotion or taking a new job (and thereby having to say goodbye to colleagues), moving from one house to another (and saying goodbye to the old home and a chapter of your life). Transition is all about letting go of somebody or something, entering a period of ‘letting be’ with confusion and potential chaos, before preparing for the ‘letting come’ of something new or different in the future. One of the roles of leaders is to provide enough psychological safety for people to let go of the known, and to reach out to discover the unknown.
The phrase ‘Let Go, Let Be, and Let Come’ is most helpful in dealing with difficulties. Classical concert violinist, Professor Miha Pogačnik, also endorses this approach by using music to demonstrate the principles of renewal and change with corporations. He says: “You have to let go in order to let come.” 3
When you are dealing with change, these are wise words. Reflecting over what you could do differently from the perspective of learning is helpful. However, wallowing in a pool of self-blame and criticism is not. We cannot control the external circumstances of our life but we can control how we respond to them. Refusing to accept the way things are is a process of denial that takes enormous energy and keeps you locked into the pain. When you choose to accept a situation, you release pent-up energy and enable yourself to harness that energy towards positive action. 4
Acceptance is not a passive act. It is about working with the flow of life rather than fighting against it. “The only place where you can experience the flow of life is the ‘Now,’ so to surrender is to accept the present moment unconditionally and without reservation,” advises Mr Eckhart Tolle. 5 Acceptance is an important stage to help you move forward.
As you move into new beginnings, you will inevitably experience a mixture of feelings; some anxiety about what might be, (remember, a certain amount of anxiety creates enabling energy), balanced with some hope and optimism that releases positive energy and helps you to focus on the gain from the pain. In our practice, we recommend a phrase for helping people deal individually with these transitions from endings to beginnings: “Pride in the past, passion for the present, and focus on the future.” The same mantra is also relevant for framing organisational change.
What has happened has already happened. It is part of what has made you the person you are today. It may have been challenging, but you have learned from your mistakes and moved on. Today is about living in the moment and being fully present and committed to whatever you are doing. It is about being and doing and (based on all the actions you are taking) about retaining a sense of hope and belief that things will work out in the future.
In summary, change is to be expected in our professional or personal life, and can be framed as an opportunity to learn and grow. Letting go is necessary in order to move ahead. Let go in order to let come. All change involves a period of doubt or confusion: awareness and acceptance make it easier to move forward rather than retreat. Feeling discomfort during change is a sign that you are making progress and acceptance releases productive energy to move forward. As our current way of living comes under increasing threat of change, reframing your attitude is not only helpful, it becomes a psychological necessity for human flourishing.
1 Kahneman D, Tversky A, Loss aversion, http://loss-aversion.behaviouralfinance.net.
2 Bridges W, 2001. The way of transition, embracing life’s most difficult moments, Perseus Books.
3 Pogačnik M, 2011. Presentation in Montreux 2011, http://www.mihavision.com.
4 Hassed C, 2008. Know thyself, the stress release program, Easyread
Edition, pp 91-93, Michelle Anderson Publishing.
5 Tolle E, 2008. The power of now, quoted in Know thyself, the stress release program, Easyread Edition, p.93, Michelle Anderson Publishing.
Copyright © 2019 Singapore Institute of Management