The Art of Leading Change

The axioms and quotes regarding change are abundant

The poet, Samuel Johnson is quoted as saying, “The chains of habits are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

In business we hear, “The only thing that is constant around here is change.”

In counseling it is often said, “People don’t change until the pain of remaining the same is worse than the pain of changing.”

We’ve all heard and experienced how difficult change can be. It can be especially challenging if you are the one leading change in your organization. In an earlier blog, I mentioned the rate of failure of organizational change initiatives and some of the new research published by McKenzie, so we will not go into that again. However, I would like to tell you a story and ask you to consider the principles that you can use to lead others through the changes that you are attempting to initiate in your organization.

When I was working in a previous career, I had a conversation with a person that went something like this:

I’m having panic attacks and feeling really nervous right now. I want to fly out to a certain city to vacation with my daughter and my grandbaby, but I don’t think I can even think about getting on the plane without going into a panic.

Now, there are several directions that one could take after hearing such a statement. Some would begin to inquire about the nature and duration of the problem. Some would recommend a lengthy counseling treatment program. Others would recommend some type of group therapy. Others would begin to inquire about the origin and duration of the panic attacks, trying to pinpoint a triggering event. Others would have begun to suggest alternative means of transportation to make the trip. I believe that each of these approaches have merit to a certain degree, and I may have even used them on occasion in similar situations. But none seemed appropriate on this occasion.

“Wow, that must be pretty tough, thinking about not getting to spend time with your daughter and grandson!?” I responded.

Yeah, it is, he said with sadness, loneliness and bit of hopelessness in his voice. I really love that kid. I’d like them to live closer to me, but they just really can’t afford it right now. I’d like to help them, but I can’t afford it either. I can barely afford to make this airplane trip, but I’m going to figure out how to make it happen. You know, he really likes me too. I can’t wait to see him, well, both of them. I’d really like to buy a little piece of land and put a couple of trailers on it so we could live close to each other. Now that would be a dream come true.

“How much would that cost?”

I guess I’d need about fifteen thousand dollars to get things started.

“Well, I don’t know what we can do about that, but let’s see if there may be anything else contributing to these panic attacks that we can deal with and go from there, ok?”

Ok, he responded.

“Do you drink alcohol?”

Yeah, a little.

“How much?”

I don’t know. Not much.

“I’ll tell you what, why don’t you tell me what you drink?”

I drink beer, that’s all.“Think about it for a few minutes and tell how many beers you think you drink every day.”

I don’t really know. I have never thought about counting them. I just enjoy them.

“Take your time and just think about it. You’ll come up with the answer in a few minutes.”

Well, come to think of it, I guess I drink about a case of beer every day, because I pick one up every night at the convenience store on the way home from work.

“So, you drink a whole case every night?”

Oh no! That’d be crazy! I drink part of it at night and the rest of it before I go to work the next morning.

“Really? Every day?”

Yeah, I believe so.

“Do you think that the alcohol could be contributing to the panic attacks?”

I never gave it much thought. Do you think that could be part of the problem?“Tell me how you came to conclude that drinking a case of beer every day is “Not much”?”

Well, my dad was a stumbling down drunk. He drank all the time and I am no stumbling down alcoholic, I know that!

“Do you think you are anything like your father?”

No way! He couldn’t even hold down a job and was a terrible father and couldn’t keep his family together. I still have my job. I go to work every day, for over twenty years now. I love my family. Well at least my daughters and my grandson. My wife left me a few years ago.

“So, how are things going at your job?”

I’m doing pretty good. I’m a truck driver. Or, well, I used to be a truck driver until they made me stop because of a few too many minor accidents. Now I just move the trucks and trailers around in the warehouse yard. I’d like to get back on the road again, when I get past these panic attacks. I think they’ll work with me. They are really good people. They are the ones who suggested I call and talk to you.

“So you may be just a little like your father?”

Maybe a little.“Do you smoke, because sometimes the nicotine can contribute to the feelings of nervousness, you know, and that may be part of what causes your panic attacks?”

Yeah, a little. You really think smoking could be causing the panic attacks? I never gave that much thought.“How much?”

How much what?How much do you smoke?

I don’t know. Not much.“I’ll tell you what, why don’t you tell me what you smoke?”

I smoke cigarettes.

“Think about it for a few minutes and tell how many cigarettes you think you smoke every day.”

Well, I guess I smoke about 3 packs a day. I buy them when I get my beer.

“Wow! That’s a lot of cigarettes! Are you worried about your health?”

I haven’t given it much thought.

“Well, you mentioned loving that grandson of yours, and I understand that cigarettes cause a lot of cancer, and I was just thinking how awful it would be for your grandson to lose his grandpa to cancer.”

Yeah, I really need to stay healthy for him. He doesn’t have a father. I am the only man in his life and I think it good for us to hang out together, don’t you?“Have you ever thought about how much it costs you to buy your beer and cigarettes?”

Not really.

“Well, I don’t smoke or drink beer, but I understand that it can be pretty expensive. How much do you think you spend every day on it?”

We did a few calculations and he came up with a daily, monthly and annual figure that shocked him. He realized that he really could afford to do a whole lot with the money he had if he adjusted some of his choices.

“Do you think you could cut back some on the smoking and drinking while we work on the panic attacks?”

Sure, that would be no problem.“Well, before you say that, let me tell you that I am a little concerned. I mean that you have a lot of alcohol in your system. In fact you are never free from the influence. You are also on a pretty high dose of nicotine. I think if you are considering cutting back, you should at least see your doctor and let him monitor this for you, maybe even go into a clinic to make sure that you have no ill effects from the withdrawal. What do you think?”

You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’ll let you know.

A couple of weeks went by and he called me back. The first thing he said was:

Well, I wanted to call you and tell you that I quit.

“What do you mean, ‘You Quit.”? Did you quit your job?”

No. I quit smoking and drinking. I have not had a drink or a smoke in three weeks.

“How are you feeling?”

Well, the first few days were lousy. I felt awful. But, I am feeling pretty good now. I can already tell how much money I’m saving. I mean, I can’t believe how much I was spending on beer and cigarettes. Man, I have better things to do with my money than that!

“Did you see your doctor?”

No, but I’m feeling okay now. And I am really excited. I am really pretty nervous about taking that plane flight, but am really looking forward to seeing my grandson.

We talked on and off for over four years. He did take the plane flight. He never smoked again, and now only drinks a beer or two a week. He still has his job and keeps working, but really likes the yard schedule now, so he never went back to the road. He saved enough money to buy the land he wanted and to put the two trailers on it so he, his daughter and grandson could live close to one another, which they do.

Consider the change principles at work here:I never labeled him as a failure or alcoholic. I think he would have resisted that. I never told him he was like his father. I never told him he had to reach bottom before he could change. In his mind he was not an “alcoholic” like his father. He could handle his alcohol. I never told him he would have to give it all up in order to be cured from his “disease”. I never labeled him as “sick”, because I truly don’t believe drinking too much is a sickness. I believe it is a choice. He found the motivation for change within, i.e. his love for that little grandson.

All I did was help him tap his story and his motivation for change. He told his story and talked himself into changing. He gave up what he needed to give up and changed what he wanted to change to make his dreams come true. His motivation for change was within. This is the kind of change that is more likely to stick for the long haul than any other.

In reality, we cannot do much to motivate people. Most of that will have to come from within them. Our job as leaders is to recognize that all change begins with the individual as we help them find their own motivations for change. It is not in mass communications, incentive programs or change strategies, though these can be helpful. Our job is getting to know people, one person at a time, and helping them tell their stories. When they find the connection between their story and ours, engagement in our mutual effort begins to occur. The person in this story is a stronger contributor at work than he has ever been. He loves and values his company. There is a mutual loyalty and commitment to a common goal. They actually help each other achieve their dreams.

Not a bad way to think about change, eh?

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