Dealing with change when you don’t want to

Image Credit: Flickr user Valerie

Change will never be this slow again.”  This shocking statement made in 2013 by Andreas Vogiatzakis, the CEO of Omnicom Media Group in Malaysia, is more and more apparent to each of us. And while some changes appear shiny and exciting, most of us feel uncomfortable taken out of our comfort zones and plunged into the unknown. New technologies, new opportunities, closed doors, and shifting expectations have us all grappling with moment-to-moment differences.

Bottom line, we need skills for surfing these constant waves of change.

In North American culture (out of which I write), we learn about change from stories. One of the most commonly known is about the frog in a pot of boiling water. (Moral: Tune into small changes around you, or enough of them can kill you!) Another is about a butterfly being helped out of its chrysalis by a well-meaning child. (Moral: if someone is struggling with change, let them struggle. We need to struggle to develop our strength, or we’ll never succeed.) Our aphorisms tell us that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We even talk about pebbles dropped into a pond and the ripples striking others who may be near or far.

We don’t typically think of the tortoise and the hare as a story about change (typical moral: Slow and steady wins the race.)  But I believe what I am seeing here will become apparent.  First though, I’ll share this quote from Seth Godin’s Purple Cow:

Why do birds fly in formation? Because the birds that follow the leader have an easier flight. The leader breaks the wind resistance, and the following birds can fly far more efficiently. Without the triangle formation, Canadian geese would never have enough to make it to the end of their long migration.

A lot of risk-averse businesspeople believe that they can follow a similar strategy. They think they can wait until a leader demonstrates a breakthrough idea, and then rush to copy it, enjoying the break in wind resistance from the leader.

If you watch the flock closely, though, you’ll notice that the flock doesn’t really fly in formation. Every few minutes, one of the birds from the back of the flock will break away, fly to the front, and take over, giving the previous leader a chance to move to the back and take a break.

The problem with people who would avoid a remarkable career is that they never end up as the leader. They decide to work for a big company, intentionally functioning as an anonymous drone, staying way back to avoid risk and criticism. …

When the market changes… With no practice leading, no practice trying the unknown, they’re trapped, panicked, and in serious trouble. … Safe is risky.

Putting all of these stories and metaphors together, and reading them through the lens of my own experiences of change, I distill a couple of important lessons for dealing with change and winning–even if you feel like you’re slow, reluctant, and old (like a tortoise):

If change is happening to you, find a way to make it your own

If you are dealing with an unexpected change, you may be tempted to focus on what you will be losing. That’s an understandable reaction, and yet it’s also one that does not help you as much as it might seem like it’s helping you. We focus on our losses because it supposedly will help us to cope with them, but in reality this does not happen. The more we consider what we are losing, the bigger those losses become.

Meanwhile, we are shrinking ourselves, shrinking our own feeling of being able to deal with the change. So we shrink, the loss grows, and before long the change feels too overwhelming. No wonder we tell cautionary tales about frogs in hot water.

One of the greatest gifts my mother gave me was a habit of embracing the opportunities that change brings. Dad had worked for IBM and retired when I was a teenager, and we tended to move every few years as I was growing up. Every time the possibility of a move was put on the table, Mom’s response was to embrace the opportunity. She would talk with excitement and joy about the friends we would make, the church we might find, and the house we would decorate.

What she was doing with this was shrinking the change by paying minimal attention to losses, and strengthening us by focusing on what we were gaining. It made us feel like navigating these changes was well within our power.

Focus on what you are learning and developing

So many of the elders in my father’s family had Alzheimer’s Disease before their death that I assume that I have a genetic predisposition to the disease. One of the best ways of supporting brain health is to be constantly learning, and one of the steepest learning curves we can experience is when change causes us to abandon our old routines and expectations. Therefore, I can embrace each new environment, each new group, each new curveball that life throws at me as a mental workout that will help me to retain my brain functioning longer.

This doesn’t make it easy. When one of the Canadian Geese breaks out of formation and takes over leadership of the flock, they’re choosing a harder job for awhile. Change is challenging. Difficulty and learning are directly linked if you are focused on learning rather than on the difficulty. Here are some questions you can ask yourself on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis to make sure you are focused on learning:

  1. What skills or knowledge would be necessary to meet this challenge?
  2. What skills/knowledge do I already have?
  3. Who do I know with the necessary skills/knowledge?
  4. What questions can I ask that would help me learn?
  5. What am I able to do or understand now that I wasn’t able to do last week? Last month?

Look at the changes that are coming your way. There are always changes. People all around you are dropping pebbles in the pond, so you aren’t being hit with just one ripple, but ripple after ripple, wave after wave.

Choose just one of those changes and ask yourself: How can I make this my own? How can I find the opportunity and focus on that, instead of focusing on the loss?

What are you learning? What can you learn and develop? Each of those changes is strengthening you if you value the struggle. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but only if you choose to develop yourself through the struggle and come through stronger. That takes a focus on what you are gaining.

Changing your focus doesn’t make it easy. But it does help you to come out stronger on the other end.


Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for adults in transition who want to have better engagement with their work lives and leaders who want to have a more powerful, positive impact.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

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