Think of the last time someone at work—maybe your boss, your boss’s boss, or an HR person—told you a change was coming. Some new way to do something, or a restructuring, or a new system to learn.
What was your immediate response?
If you’re like most people, your first reaction was probably more negative than positive. Perhaps something like: “Aargh, as if the past 18 months haven’t been stressful enough.” Or maybe you thought, “This is going to be awful,” followed by a sinking feeling and a sense of being newly overwhelmed.
Why is the idea of change—especially change imposed upon us by others—so unwelcome? Given the past few years of massive change and disruption on so many levels, you’d think we would have gotten used to nonstop personal and professional change by now.
Our Anti-Change Wiring
Blame our experience as a species. Change has been dangerous for most of human history; the safest course of action has generally been to return to the known. If there was a famine, you wanted to get back to eating regularly. If there was an invading army, you wanted to get back to peace and prosperity. If there was a plague, you wanted to get back to (relative) health. You get the idea. Most of the time, homeostasis—returning to a previous set of stable conditions most supportive of survival—was the way to go.
Over thousands of years, this has resulted in people seeing most change in a way that can be summarized in three words: difficult, costly, and weird.
Difficult means “I don’t know how to do it” or “things will get in the way of me doing it.” Costly means it will take time and resources, and perhaps other things I value as well: my identity, relationships, power, or reputation. Weird just means strange and unnatural. Assigning these three negative qualities to change has kept us focused on maintaining the status quo for hundreds of generations.
And while this impulse is still appropriate in some ways—if we’re too hot, our impulse to cool off is still helpful—in many other ways, our deeply wired-in impulse toward “the known” simply doesn’t serve us anymore.
In today’s world, being capable of and comfortable with change is a necessary response to the rapidly changing world we live in. From addressing the climate crisis to resolving inequities in society, to operating our businesses in ways that respond to ever-evolving customer needs and expectations (organizationally, economically, politically, and sociologically), maintaining the previous status quo is quite often no longer the safest choice. In many situations, it’s now the most dangerous choice.
Rewiring Ourselves for the 21st Century
So, what’s a human to do? How can we revise this thousands-of-years-in-the-making response to change? Luckily, we humans have a powerful tool at our disposal that can help us do just that: we can decide to think differently.
We do this every day without realizing it. For example, let’s say you decided when you were a kid that you didn’t like Brussels sprouts; the only ones you ever had were soggy, unseasoned, and overcooked. So, your mental monologue—your self-talk, if you will—about Brussels sprouts is: “They’re disgusting.”
Then, one day, a friend who’s an excellent cook says to you, “Try these Brussels sprouts. I know you think you hate them, but these are cooked differently with ingredients you like. I bet you’ll enjoy them.” And because you trust this person (but are still probably thinking, “Oh gross”), you gingerly take one bite. They’re delicious; they’re sautéed with salt and pepper, and maybe a little bacon. Suddenly, automatically, you’re thinking differently: “Wow, yum! I guess Brussels sprouts can be good!”
Making Change Easy, Rewarding, and Normal
In the same way, you can decide to think differently about a change. When you notice yourself thinking that a particular change (especially one you know you need to make) is going to be difficult, costly, or weird, you can consciously decide that, instead, it could be easy (or at least doable), rewarding, and normal.
Here’s how this might look in real life. Let’s go back to one of those common change situations I noted earlier. Let’s say you’ve just been told that your organization is bringing in a whole new approach to invoicing clients, and invoicing is now part of your job. Maybe your first thought is: “Oh man, I bet this is going to be complicated (difficult), and the last thing I need right now is something new that’s going to take time to learn (costly). Worse, this doesn’t look like anything I’ve used before (weird).”
But as you now know, thinking this way about change is not your only choice. You have the power to change your mind. You can decide to say to yourself: “I bet there will be some training on how to do this (easy/doable), and they’re saying it will ultimately save us some time and be easier for our clients (rewarding). Susan is in favor of it, and I trust her (normal).
When you start to think differently about a change, you generally start to feel differently about it. You go from worried, irritated, overwhelmed, and unhappy to curious, a little more relaxed, and maybe even hopeful. You’re starting to rewire yourself—to change your response to change.
Change Is Our ‘New Normal’
Every indication is that the pace of change in our lives and in the world will continue to increase. It doesn’t look like we’re ever going to return to a time when everything is mostly status quo; we no longer have the luxury of relying on our impulse toward homeostasis and staying with what’s worked in the past.
Having the ability to accept and respond well to necessary change will become more important with every passing day. Therefore, I invite you to rewire yourself in this way: to learn to think and feel differently about change, to become change-capable. It’s your best path to a successful, satisfying personal and professional life in this era of nonstop change.