If Change is the Only Constant, How Do I Navigate It?

It is said that the only thing constant is change. If this is the case, then why are most of us not very good at it?

It seems that our brains are at odds with our external world, often for very good reasons.

At its core, change is a threat. Whether it is personal or professional – a divorce, a new boss, or a move to a new home – these threats tie back to five common factors.  Your brain wants to protect you and defend what is most important to you, including your Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness (SCARF). If the threat to these factors is felt strongly enough, your defense mechanisms kick in.

It’s called the “fight or flight” reflex – that initial reaction your body has to change. It is driven by the amygdala portion of your brain. This is, of course, the response that kept your ancestors alive. For today’s humans, it quite often keeps you frozen or may spark outrage or a battle, when a big change happens in your life.

So what are you to do in the face of our innate reactions to change?  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross originally created  the Stages of Grief model, and this version aptly named the Seven Stages of Change can be helpful here. (There are many versions of this model, so search for stages of change for more information).

What this model tells me is that spending some time in fight or flight mode may be necessary for a period of time, but to live a healthy and happy life, traveling through these seven stages is critical to our wellbeing.

In a article I wrote for Forbes, I talked briefly about my husband’s recent loss of sight due to an infection. As you might imagine, we are both finding our way through this roller coaster (face it, doesn’t the model look exactly like a roller coaster?).  And, you would be right if you thought we were trying to understand the five common factors of the SCARF model in the context of our loss.

Here is what we are learning, along with some ideas for its application in the workplace.

Shock and Disbelief are kissing cousins when it comes to major change. The impact of any change cannot be imagined early on, which often feels as though you have no ground on which to walk. Instead you are riding only emotions, because at this point fight or flight is in control.

In the workplace these two emotions may show up during change in a slightly less recognizable way, but you can count on them being present. Give those impacted by the change some space to feel what they are feeling, to talk it out, ask questions and gain clarity.

When change happens, it is so easy to fall into a trap of Self Doubt, self-incrimination or “why-me-ness” as a direct result of the lack of control and understanding you have in the situation. This may come out in anger or withdrawal, but it will come out.

When dealing with a work change, allow yourself and your team to express what each is feeling, perhaps through small group meetings or one-on-one. This is a time when you may want to leverage the factors from the SCARF model (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness), referenced above, to understand and address their biggest concerns.

It is difficult to move forward without Acceptance. This means “the way you’ve always done things” may need to change, including the expectations you have of others, of yourself, as well as what you do with your time and how you communicate. I am constantly struck by what creatures of habit we humans are. It can make this stage slow going.

Notice that this is the low point on the curve. It makes sense when you consider that getting to the depth of your emotions often inspires change. Pay attention to what is happening to your employees in order to support them as they move toward the next stage. In addition to your support, they will need some direction and ideas as they move into the phase of testing out the change for themselves.

Experimentation in my world means that my husband is walking farther into spaces he has, up until now, avoided because they are wide and untested.

Isn’t this the same thing that happens with our team members? Change often feels open and untested. It is uncharted territory and you and your employees may feel as though you are walking blind. Support and encourage the experimentation, the feedback, the new ideas; they mean that people are moving in the right direction.

Humans, by nature, are inclined to Search for Meaning. We need to question what has happened and why.

Employees need to do this too. To really accept the change they need to understand why it is important to them. As a supervisor, you may need to help them see where they fit and what they will contribute in order to find meaning that matters to them.

Ah, Integration -finally! This is the point at which you might wonder what all the previous fuss was about. You might also wonder how you ever got by the “old way.” The bottom line is that you have successfully navigated the change and, most importantly, learned more about yourself and your capabilities.

When a particular change takes hold in your company or with an individual employee, celebrate the work that everyone has done. Recognize the hard choices, the perseverance, the openness and the flexibility that each has shown.

In our very fast-paced lives, change IS the only constant. Arm yourselves with an understanding of what matters to you and an awareness of what it takes to successfully change and step into it. This is the only way to navigate the path to success.






















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