The Path of Change

Change is unyielding and unending. Every day is unique. If you can’t think of a reason that’s true, here’s a global perspective. As the earth travels around the sun, you are 1.6 million miles from where you were yesterday. A more tangible parallel is the weather. While that can be forecasted, it cannot be determined. We can anticipate outcomes but cannot foresee them. Minute changes are easily overcome and even welcomed as monotony can be deflating. Larger changes however, feel insurmountable. We look across the deep chasm of where we are, our comfort, to where we’re headed, the unknown and different, and wonder how anyone could cross.

The Change Curve

A few years ago I was introduced to a popular concept to me called the Change Curve. This curve helps to model the journey we take when change is afoot within an organization or beyond those four walls. We’ll use a broad example of just discovering that your current role will be transitioning to a different capacity in which responsibilities will shift and new operating procedures will be put in place.

We begin on the left where what we know is all we know. Merrily content with our undisturbed work. Suddenly, a forceful gust of wind pushes us over the ledge and we begin tumbling towards an arduous rocky bottom. The announcement of impending change happens fast and is unpredictable. This part of the curve is where we know the least amount of information and where we can feel like the change is happening to us. We’ve been informed that we’re now on a path that the day prior didn’t know existed. We have so many questions and here so many of them go unanswered.

Different = Emotionally Taxing

An organization’s decision to make major changes is not without forethought. Great organizations spend time weighing different paths against remaining on the current one. When the decision is finally made, only the path is decided and some obvious risks along the way. They are unaware of every twist, every fallen tree that will have to be hurdles before the final destination. Yet when it is announced, it is our natural tendency to ask these very questions in hopes of quelling our anxiety and doubts.

Anxiety is born from too little information and no power to control. When a change is external, not brought onto yourself, like an organization’s decision to shift responsibilities you certainly feel powerless. We may not always have the chance to influence how a change is decided or put into action. Great organizations consult those that would be affected but usually select a few to speak for many. If we cannot gain power over the situation we therefore search for more information.

Managers say it, leaders follow through on it.

While leaders may not have the exact route mapped out, calling out these emotions is a comforting antidote. Bringing teams together to share initial thoughts and feelings dissipates feelings of loneliness and uncertainty and those are not only recognized but accepted. There should be commitment from leaders that as information comes down, what can be shared will be and that it is all open for discussion. Managers say it, leaders follow through on that commitment.

The Valley of Despair

Too often managers hear uncomfortable feedback surrounding change and say “Hey, don’t be upset with me, I’m not the one that decided this!” Then take a passive role in letting the change happen to the team and not with the team. If you feel like a change is happening to you and not with you, this further deepens the powerlessness you feel and as the actual change begins, we get to bottoming out in the curve in what’s aptly named the Valley of Despair.

The Valley of Despair is vast and the darkest section as we find ourselves against an upward rock face, casting looming shadows over where we stand. Here we’re being directly impacted by the decisions made. Responsibilities you’ve had are being trained out and new, confusing expectations are laid out in their place. It is at this point where going back is not an option and moving forward seems impossible. Where what was once was cannot be and what is to be is not what was. At this lowest point we are uncomfortable, tentative, and vulnerable. We feel that even budging an inch will cause catastrophe. Without an easy way out, we decide to stay, becoming grounded and most resistant. The change is no longer occurring to us, it is working against us.

Change for the Better

The toughest task of organizations going through change is being able to pull people out from the Valley of Despair and move towards Acceptance where change happens with us. We need to be cognizant that people approach this section at varying speeds. Some people, using momentum from the initial fall seem to fly over the Valley of Despair and others fall head first into it. It is crucial to understand that both responses are human and neither should be characterized or misjudged.

We can however leverage those who are already on the Acceptance trek to help those still in the valley. They cannot get out alone and the lifeline required is connection. Everyone finds acceptance in their own way and on their own time but what helps tremendously is hearing from others already there. It is these people that have begun to realize this is the section where you are powerful. Yes, new expectations are confusing so let’s define them. Yes, those familiar responsibilities are gone so let’s learn new ones. Armed with more information and now the power to affect, anxiety is left in the valley with the shadow of our former selves.

Change For Us

At the top, beyond Acceptance is Meaning. In a state of acceptance, we can still be hesitant to change. There’s a space in acceptance where one may not accept because they see the positives but because they have no energy left to oppose. When we discover the meaning, our disposition shifts from change being with us, to for us. It makes all the endeavors thus far seem worth it. “I can do more with this different position.”This will help me further my career.” In acceptance, the change is an object to be conquered. In meaning, the change is a mindset.

Finally, we reach the other side. We look back across the landscape and can appreciate the journey we took. With change complete we stand in a higher place, with knowledge and growth gained. More knowledge of our personal speed through the Valley of Despair. Deeper understanding of what we need to move from acceptance to meaning. A certain comradery with the others that supported you along the way. Most importantly, confidence that the next change will be met with less resistance and that ultimately change does not happen to us or against us, but with us and for us.

(What learnings have you uncovered during your times of change? Let me know in the comments here or on Facebook at!)

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