Conquering fear of change

There's a story that public company Chief Exec, investor, and entrepreneur Vivek Paul tells.

When hiking through the jungle outside Bangalore, he recounts that he came across several large elephants tethered to small stakes, and asked the elephant trainer why the elephants didn't struggle to get free.

The trainer explained that when the elephants were small they tried to pull out the stake, and failed. When they grew large, they never tried to pull the stake out again.

It's a thought-provoking tale, because it's not just elephants that get 'tethered' in their thinking. 

Why do we assume that what worked against us in the past is still in play? Past experiences don't have to limit what we can achieve today.

 Photo © Timj.b, Flickr CC

Photo © Timj.b, Flickr CC

Resistance kicks in

But then, personal change is not generally easy… We all develop unconscious patterns of behaviour and stick with those habits for years sometimes, before we notice they're no longer serving us so well. 

But even when we do tune in and notice there's a case for change, it's tough to make a shift and operate differently. Fear and resistance come up for all of us, in varying degrees – even if the reasons for change are imperative. 

Plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz observed in the 1950s that his patients took 21 days to get used to changes in their appearance… But a more recent (2009) study led by Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, found that on average it actually takes more like 2 months (66 days, to be precise) before a new behaviour becomes automatic. 

And the same is often even more true of groups. In teams and organisations, ways of working are often entrenched, and it takes a concerted effort if anything is to shift - because cultures develop that tell us, as individuals, that "this is how things are always done here".
It's why as coaches, we often have to be change leaders for our clients – challenging and encouraging you to explore new ground, step into the unknown, or make that big leap of faith. Everyone has the propensity to make things much more complicated than they need to be, in order to protect the status quo. It's that resistance and fear of change coming to the surface. 

So it's the coach's job – internal or external – to shine a spotlight on that complexity. 

When clients say they're too busy, it's a case of asking them how their use of time relates to their priorities.

When executive teams tell me "that's just how things are", I ask them to consider how they might be able to better meet (and beat) their goals with a different culture in place.
And when that resistance to and fear of change comes to the surface – when people really don't want to take a new approach, or embrace the "exciting challenge" that they've just been presented with – it's about uncovering the pay-off, the win, or the upside of change, versus standing still.

The big question

The big question to think about when you're facing change is this: what are the assumptions that are stopping you from moving forward?

Because those assumptions can quickly take root where a team or an organisation is concerned, and grow as an integral part of your culture. A way of working develops that feels so normal, it's easy to forget that there could be a completely different way of approaching things.

So consider the 'tethers' in your organisation; what are you chained to, unnecessarily? What habits could your business cast off and do differently? What assumptions have you made about the way forward? Think about that seriously and you'll be better prepared for the organisational challenges ahead.

A version of this article originally appeared in the CIPD publication, People Management, penned by the inspirational Lyn Bicker.

Over to you

Have you worked in a team held back by its past experiences – or maybe you know the power of a shift in culture? Come over and let us know on Twitter.

Tying yourself up?

If you've got an inkling that your business culture needs review, and could be designed differently to help you achieve and beat your strategic goals, our Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast package has been created with you in mind. Two bespoke workshops to dig into what your current culture is, and what intentional changes are needed to move forward – with three of our most talented coaches.

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