Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a coaching, consulting, and training firm that focuses on leader readiness; and over the past 30 years, she has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are tailored to the challenges, goals, and cultures of her clients. Erika and her colleagues at Proteus focus on helping leaders at all levels GET ready and STAY ready to meet whatever the future might bring. In addition, Erika is the author of many books as well as the author and host of the Proteus Leader Show, a regular podcast that offers quick, practical support for leaders and managers. Follow on Twitter @erikaandersen and @ProteusLeader – and also on the web at www.proteus-international.com. Erika and I recently discussed her newest book, and highlights follow below.
QUESTION: In your new book, Change from the Inside Out, you talk about why change is hard for most people – and that our difficult relationship with change is rooted in our history as humans. Can you explain that?
ERIKA ANDERSEN: I started writing this book, as with all my books, because I was curious about some things. We’ve been working with clients on change for well over a decade, but there were some core things about change that were still puzzling to me.
The first one was: Why is change so hard for most people? As I explored this question, I began to realize that the answer lies in our history as a species. Until the past few generations, most people’s lives stayed very much the same from beginning to end; people grew up where their parents had grown up, did the work their parents had done, believed and thought the things previous generations had believed and thought. Even the less common events were generally expected: people died, babies were born, crops did better some years and poorly in others.
Real change was fairly rare, and it was generally a threat and a danger. War, famine, plague, flood: change usually meant that a person’s stability and survival were being threatened. Getting back to the known as quickly as possible was almost always the safest bet. As a result, this urge toward homeostasis – returning to a stable condition – is deeply wired into us, and until recently, has mostly served us well. It has been a good survival mechanism for thousands of years.
But these days, the world is different than it’s ever been. Just over the past fifty or sixty years, the pace of change has increased tremendously. For example, Americans started buying TVs in the 1950s. Color TVs began to be widely available in the 1960s. That degree of innovation, from black-and-white to color TV, took a decade just sixty years ago – and it now happens in months or even weeks. Especially now, with all the change spurred by the pandemic, major change happens moment to moment: economically, environmentally, sociologically, politically – and organizationally. Today, our organizations need to change on an almost daily basis to stay competitive and to take advantage of the best and most effective new ways to communicate, to operate, and to meet their stakeholders’ changing needs and wants.
Given all this, our old, anti-change wiring that served us so well for centuries no longer works. We need to re-wire ourselves to be more comfortable with and open to change; we need to become more change-capable.
TWEET THIS: Today, our organizations need to change on an almost daily basis to stay competitive. ~@erikaandersen #EmployerBranding #DebbieLaskeysBlog
TWEET THIS: We need to re-wire ourselves to be more comfortable with and open to change; we need to become more change-capable. ~@erikaandersen #DebbieLaskeysBlog
QUESTION: You use the term “change-capable” throughout your book – it’s even in the book’s subtitle. What do you mean by that?
ERIKA ANDERSEN: Change-capable has become the “term of art” for us in our change practice. We use it to describe a person, a team, or an organization that is supportive of necessary change. For a leader and their team to be change-capable means they understand how change works, and have the skills, both mental and practical, to make needed change as quickly and smoothly as is feasible. Change-capable people can accelerate the process of change and make it less painful for themselves and those around them.
A change-capable organization is one that has systems, processes, structures, and a culture that enable and support change. We often say that a change-capable organization is like a solid, well-constructed bridge that allows people to move from the current state to a changed future state without undue difficulty.
TWEET THIS: A change-capable organization is like a solid, well-constructed bridge that allows people to move from the current state to a changed future state without undue difficulty. ~@erikaandersen #DebbieLaskeysBlog
QUESTION: What is the Change Arc, and why is it important?
ERIKA ANDERSEN: That’s the other thing I got curious about when I start writing this book: What actually happens inside us, as individual human beings, when we go through a specific change? I figured if I could understand that, it would be hugely helpful to people in their journey to becoming more change-capable. And the answer to that question is the Change Arc. We discovered that there’s a simple, predictable, and powerful pattern that occurs when a person embraces and moves through a change. My colleagues at Proteus and I have come to call this pattern the Change Arc.
When a change is first proposed, most people immediately want to know three things: What does this change mean to me? Why is it happening? And What will it look like when the change has been made? Based on our history of change-as-threat, these questions are the most efficient at helping us find out just how disruptive and difficult the change is likely to be.
As someone begins to ask these questions, their initial mindset (again, based on many thousands of years of change being a threat) is usually that the change will be difficult, costly, and weird. Difficult means “I don’t know how to do this, and/or other people are going to make it hard for me to do this.” Costly means “this will take away from me things I value.” We might assume that the change will take from us time or money, but we’re likely to assume the change will take away even more intrinsic valuables like identity, power, reputation, or relationships. Weird just means strange and unnatural: “this isn’t the way we do things around here.”
This initial mindset that a proposed change is likely to be difficult, costly, and weird acts as a kind of filter, so that even when we’re given genuinely positive and helpful information about the change – that it won’t be hard to implement or that we’ll be fully supported in doing it, for example – we tend to disbelieve that, and assume that either the person proposing the change isn’t being honest or that they don’t really know what’s involved.
This all results in our negative reactions to a proposed change. When you share a proposed change with your team, they’re starting at the beginning of their change arc in responding to it and are starting out assuming that it will be difficult, costly, and weird.
As we observed this pattern, in our clients and in ourselves, we then saw something exciting: the mindset shift that catalyzes change. We saw that people start to open up to and then embrace a change when their mindset begins to shift from “this change is going to be difficult, costly and weird” to “this change could be easy, rewarding and normal.”
This is the heart of the Change Arc. Once someone starts to believe that a change could be easy (or at least doable) to make; that the rewards of making it could outweigh the costs; and that the change could become normal – that is, that it could become “the way we do things,” then that person begins to be willing to operate in the new ways that the change requires, and they will be open to learning and doing those new behaviors so that the change can occur.
QUESTION: In Change from the Inside Out, you wrote, “The leaders of any group are the catalyst for successful change.” What makes a leader an effective catalyst for change?
ERIKA ANDERSEN: When we work with leaders around change, we almost always say to them the sentence you hear on airplanes about oxygen masks: “Put on your own mask before attempting to help others.” The most important thing you as a leader can do to be an effective catalyst for change is to first become personally more change-capable: to get better at moving yourself through the mindset shift around any change well and quickly. After that, the best ways for leaders to help catalyze change are to develop the skills of supporting their teams and their organizations through change – which is what the rest of Change from the Inside Out is all about.
TWEET THIS: The leaders of any group are the catalyst for successful change. ~@erikaandersen #LeadershipTip #DebbieLaskeysBlog
QUESTION: Your new book outlines a five-step change model that you say, “integrates the human and practical side of change.” Why is this important?
ERIKA ANDERSEN: Most well-known approaches to change either focus primarily on the mechanical, nuts-and-bolts side of making change – like Kotter or Accenture, or they focus primarily on the human side – like Bridges or Adkar. We’ve found that the most successful change efforts do both: make sure that the change itself is clearly thought through, planned, and executed – and at the same time, that the people affected by the change are supported to move through their change arc so that they can accept and respond to the change as it occurs. That’s what our five-step model is designed to do.
QUESTION: Is the five-step model only applicable to large-scale corporate change, or can it be used to move through individual or small group changes, as well?
ERIKA ANDERSEN: The best thing about our five-step model, from my point of view, if that it’s almost infinitely “scope-able.” As a frame, it’s as useful for planning a family move as for moving a 50,000-person organization through a global transformation.
That’s because the five steps are simple and universally applicable:
(1) Clarify the change and why it’s needed
(2) Envision the future state
(3) Build the change
(4) Lead the transition
(5) Keep the change going
Each of the five steps has a handful of practical goals (what needs to be accomplished in that step), which again, can be done simply in a personal situation, or cover a lot of territory in an organizational change. But all of them focus on the two core ideas of thoughtfully planning and executing the change while supporting people psychologically, emotionally, and practically through that change.
QUESTION: What are “change levers?”
ERIKA ANDERSEN: The change levers are four simple approaches you can take to support people through their Change Arc. Like physical levers, they are force multipliers – they can accelerate and ease people through their mindset shift around change:
(1) Increase understanding: Remember, the first thing your folks want is foundational information about the change. Too often, organizations communicate a change in a cheery, superficial way (“We’re going to be converting to a new invoicing system - and it’s great!”) that doesn’t provide what people need – and, in fact, can simply increase their sense of risk. It’s most helpful to create and communicate a simple summary of the change that outlines the three pieces of information that those affected will want to know: what the change will mean for them, why it’s happening, and a verbal “sketch” of the better future you’ll have post-change.
It’s important that the information you share be realistic – that it acknowledges the time and effort the change will require – and that it lets people know how you’ll support them (with information, training, etc.) to make the change. Once you’ve created this “case for change,” expect (and be prepared to answer) questions about it. Remember, people are wired to believe that most change is dangerous, and the only way they’ll be able to shift to a more neutral or positive view of a given change is by getting the necessary information, stories, and experience to help them frame it differently.
(2) Clarify and reinforce priorities: Because we fear change, we tend to over-estimate its impacts. When people hear about an organizational change, they often assume everything is changing and nothing will stay the same which reinforces their fear and hesitation. Letting people know what isn’t changing as well as what is changing can be very reassuring.
For example, let’s say that you’re reorganizing your support services group by type of issue, and away from a geographic focus. By confirming that the roles and responsibilities of the client support staff will remain largely the same, and that their core priorities are still to build and maintain great relationships while resolving issues quickly and well, you can help your people be better prepared to focus on what needs to change, versus worrying about all the things that will be staying very much the same.
(3) Give control: One of the things that feels most dangerous to people about change is that it’s out of their control. Especially with large-scale organizational change, employees can feel almost victimized: at the effect of forces over which they have no say. By giving your people as many choices as possible during the change, you can reduce their fear and discomfort and increase the chances of engagement and buy-in.
A few years ago, we were working with a US-based multinational company that had just acquired another company, headquartered in Latin America. The Chief Human Resources Officer/CHRO of the acquired company was worried about the change. She assumed that the acquiring company would impose their systems and that she would have less influence. In other words, she assumed the change would be difficult, costly, and weird.
To her surprise (and delight), her new boss gave her control in a variety of ways. For instance, he worked with her to come up with the timing for the transition to the new systems, and he asked her to create a communication plan for how and when she wanted to communicate the changes to her team. By giving her as many elements of control as were feasible, her boss helped shift her mindset from negative to more supportive of the change; and she began to focus on how to make the change easier and more rewarding for her team and for the rest of the acquired company’s employees, so they could begin to experience it as the new – and accepted – normal.
(4) Give support. Finally, and most importantly, people need consistent support throughout any change that affects them directly. When things change, people go through a lot of mental and emotional adjustment. Too often, leaders try to talk people out of what they’re feeling or dismiss it all together. Remember, by the time we communicate a change to our people, we’ve generally had some time to go through our own change arc. Then we often expect our employees to be as accepting of the change from that first moment as we are after months of thought, questioning, and mindset shift. Give them a little time to be worried, to hesitate, to ask questions, to want to know the impact on them, even to be sad or anxious.
The single most effective way leaders can give support, especially at the beginning of a change, as those affected are starting to go through their Change Arc, is to listen. Listen deeply, and without trying to explain or reassure. Summarize people’s concerns and make sure that you’ve understood. Ask what you can do to address those concerns and take careful note of the answers.
Rather than labeling people’s initial discomfort and hesitation as resistance, recognize they’re going through the same process you probably went through when you first heard about the change: they need to understand and process the proposed change and then move through their mindset shift about the change. If you give people support in the early days of a change by listening deeply to their concerns and questions, without being dismissive or overly reassuring – they’ll feel heard and supported. Then they’ll be ready to hear about the more tangible support you can offer: training, tools, demos or simulations, mentors, or affinity groups.
QUESTION: What would you most like people to take away from reading your latest book?
ERIKA ANDERSEN: A hopeful message: that we can re-wire each ourselves to become more change-capable. First, we have control over our mindset, and we can learn to think in a more hopeful and neutral way about change. We can shift our thinking about any necessary change from “difficult, costly and weird” to “easy/doable, rewarding and normal.” Second, we can learn and use models for moving through personal and organizational change that address both the practical, tangible aspects of change and the human – more emotional and psychological – side of change. We can get good at this, so that we can enjoy and thrive through this era of non-stop change.
My thanks to Erika for sharing her always amazing and helpful leadership and workplace insights and for appearing here on my Blog again!
Image credits: Wordswag and Erika Andersen.
For more inspiration, check out Erika’s previous appearances on my Blog:
Three Leadership Secrets: Build Consensus, Be Open to Challengers, and Delegate (May 2021)
Review of: Leading So People Will Follow by Erika Andersen (October 2019)
Leadership + Strategy = Amazing Employee Experience (November 2018)
Review of: Be Bad First by Erika Andersen (October 2018)
Are You the Type of Manager or Leader YOU Would Follow? (January 2014)
Want to be Nicknamed Strategy Guru? (July 2011)