We crave stability. In the heart of the pandemic, we wanted a return to normal. But at the same time, recognizing change is constant, we talked about “the new normal.”
It’s a difficult dance, and we can easily get tangled. Leadership coach Brad Stulberg notes most people attempt to avoid change by refusing to acknowledge it or, alternatively, actively resisting the change coming at them. Because change is perceived as something happening to them, they relinquish control over the situation. Our hope is to return to where we were.
Instead, he feels, we need to embrace the notion of “allostasis,” which is stability through change. It’s a pattern of order, disorder and reorder. “We achieve stability through change,” he writes in Master of Change.
And the best method for that is rugged flexibility. We must be tough, determined and durable. At the same time, we must consciously respond to altered circumstances or conditions, adapting and bending easily, without breaking.
“Ruggedness without flexibility is rigidity; flexibility without ruggedness is instability. Put the two together, however, and you emerge with the supple strength needed to persist and thrive over the long haul – a theme that is true not only for individuals, but for organizations as well,” he says.
To do that, we must be open to the flow of life, but at the time understand adapting will be hard. Happiness is a function of our reality minus expectations. So it makes sense to keep our expectations from being unrealistically high. Anticipating that change will be hard makes everything easier.
Rugged flexibility extends to our sense of identity. If our identity becomes too attached to any one pursuit, person or concept – including how it views itself – we can run into trouble as change occurs. Essentially, Mr. Stulberg says, we need to hold our identities in two ways at the same time. There is the conventional self that is distinct, stable and here right now. But at the same time there is the ultimate self that is constantly changing.
It’s a fluid identity. “By conceiving of ourselves in a fluid manner, change, be it internal or external, becomes less threatening; our identities become more rugged and flexible and thus better able to endure and persist over the long haul, including throughout countless cycles of order, disorder and reorder,” Mr. Stulberg writes.
We need to respond – not react – to change. That’s a subtle difference, but reaction is when we fixate on the change, perhaps angrily, while respond suggests moving ahead with wisdom, grace and courage. It’s adopting the Serenity Prayer: Accepting the things you cannot change, having the courage to change what you can and having the wisdom to know the difference.
He sets out alternative paths we can take toward change, one ineffective and the other effective. The two Ps approach is the reacting path: We panic and pummel ahead. The more responsive path, 4Ps, is to pause, process, plan and only then proceed.
“Reacting is quick. You feel and then do. Responding is slower. It involves more space between an event and what you do, or don’t do, about it,” he explains.
In that pause, you give immediate emotions room to breathe. That allows you to process – understand what is happening. Now you can reflect and strategize, using the more evolved parts of the human brain, to plan something in accord with your values. Then you can proceed accordingly.
He offers questions to improve your handling of change. Where in your life are you pursuing fixity where it might be beneficial to open yourself up to the possibility – or in some cases, the inevitability - of change? Are there elements of your identity to which you cling too tightly? In what circumstances do you tend to react when you would benefit from responding, and what conditions predispose you to that?
The answers may help you find rugged flexibility amidst change.
- You repeat what you ignore, warns executive coach Dan Rockwell. When you’re running in circles, admit you are running in circles.
- Presentations require an outline – two of them, according to communications coach Gary Genard. Your preparation outline contains full sentences to convey your thoughts on the topic; this helps you to think, the complete sentences avoiding short-circuiting your ideas. Then boil that down into a speaking outline with the hard-hitting words and phrases you will actually use. “We write in sentences but we speak in ideas and emotions,” he explains.
- The best indication of how long something might exist is how long it already has existed says Winnipeg blogger David Cain. This is known at the Lindy Effect, formed initially by a group of comedians who gathered nightly at New York’s Lindy diner, and while the rule doesn’t apply to perishable things – like bananas or humans – it is useful otherwise for determining what will stick around.
- Talent and potential means nothing if you can’t consistently do the boring things when you don’t feel like doing them, observes Farnam Street blogger Shane Parrish.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.