The Discomfort of Change


Change is hard. It causes stress, and makes people feel off balance and out of sync. When that happens, there are two ways people can regain their sense of balance: They can hunker down and redouble their commitment to what they believe has worked in the past, or they can move through the change process, however uncomfortable it may be, to get to a new reality on the other side.  What impacts which path people choose? You.

While much has been written on leading change, the part that too many leaders miss is that change is not a “check-the-box” linear process. It requires constant recalibration to keep the disequilibrium, the discomfort, of change moving in a productive direction rather than a destructive one. In other words, if you push people too hard, they will retreat to what they know. To affect productive change, a leader has to gauge and guide people through their discomfort to reach the goal on the other side.

Camille Preston visualizes the process as a donut. The hole in the middle is the “comfort zone.” The donut — the space outside the comfort zone — is the learning zone where there is a tolerable level of tension and stress. She describes the outer reaches of the learning zone — the rim of the donut — as “terror’s edge.” Too often as leaders, we expect people to move from straight from the comfort zone to terror’s edge, without providing them the chance to move through the productive discomfort of testing the waters, learning new things, considering different perspectives, and expanding their understanding.

So how do you help your people move through the discomfort of change?

Start with a shared goal. When you cast the past as bad or ineffective (even if you believe that to be true), people who have been part of the “old way” often hear that they are bad or ineffective, which leads to defensiveness, thereby making it harder to bring about the change you are working to achieve. Starting the conversation with a shared goal — the positive you are working toward — will get people on board quicker that criticizing past behavior.

Break it into bite-sized pieces. Expecting people to move strait from A to Z, to go from their comfort zone to blindly stepping off terrors edge, will lead to resistance. Cast the vision and then then provide specific steps that, while uncomfortable, still feel manageable. Here’s where leaders often get tripped up — you moved through the learning zone while you were considering the change, so “Z” feels like the next logical step. This is all new to your people. Start where they are, not where you are.

Acknowledge that growth is uncomfortable. Let your people know that change is unsettling uncomfortable, and just plain hard. That’s okay. Let them ask questions, push back, and recalibrate. Then take a step forward and repeat. It is the leader’s job to change the narrative from discomfort = bad to discomfort = growth.

And that’s really the bottom line. If you want positive change — it you want growth — discomfort is going to be part of the process. Are you comfortable with that?

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