The complex game of navigating change


rachael circle imageAuthor: Rachael Stott

Periods of complex change bring into sharp relief the potential negative impacts of both anticipated and unforeseen consequences. As these consequences shift from potential to actual, they not only disrupt desired outcomes but can also reinforce change resistance. Change leaders are tasked with driving forward to advance initiatives, while at the same time mitigating real and potential negative impacts. If they cannot step back and look at the whole, short-term tactics may undermine long-term strategy. Likewise, if they don’t see and respond appropriately to what’s in front of them, the long-term can again be compromised.

Human nature can conspire against us

When navigating simultaneous complex challenges, leaders must maintain both a broad perspective and deliberate focus. The difficulty of this task is amplified by the fact that these challenges that require 'both and' thinking, likewise trigger physiological and psychological adaptive responses that narrow our perspective, thinking and focus. As well as a cognitive impact, these responses can also decrease our relational capacity. At the very time we need to be purposefully engaging others, we may find ourselves in fight, flight, flee or fawn mode; none of which support trusted, open or constructive engagement.

When it really is a crisis

Stressors associated with change are not uniform. Some may be acute, triggered by significant crises that require immediate action. In this case, a shot of adrenalin and sharp focus can serve our initial response. That mode does not however serve long-term solutioning. In “How to keep your cool in high stress situations” a practical self-regulation framework is offered, to move on from our initial threat activation state, so that we can better think, engage and connect. Given creativity and connectedness have enabled the evolutionary success of humans, it seems likely that this is also a productive state for navigating organisational crises.

Navigating chronic vs. acute change stressors

More commonly, change stressors are less immediately obvious and accumulate more gradually. The potential impacts are the same, whether stress is acute or chronic. Constant low-level activation of the threat response can also lead to tunnel vision and limited bandwidth for constructive engagement. Four practices leaders can use to help their team or organisation collectively combat change exhaustion are offered in “Managers, what are you doing about change exhaustion?

Put your own oxygen mask on (and keep it on)

While leaders may have more agency than some in change environments, the complex, simultaneous challenges of leading change cannot be underestimated. None of the tips and tools offered in support of mitigating the impact of change stressors are about doing more. Most are about being more intentional in how we are leading - ourselves and the change initiative. For example, “rituals can go a long way towards reducing our stress levels during times of uncertainty… it doesn’t even matter what the ritual is, simply doing the same thing at the same time can improve our mental health.”

Photo credits: Unsplash.com (Charlie Solorzano)


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