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Who said ‘embrace change’?

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The worlds of motivational workshops, life coaching and management consulting are peppered with the now seriously clichéd ‘embrace change’.   If you’re not for change you are against it.  You’re either progressive and creative – a constant ball of energy, seeking your next change fix; or you’re stagnant or dead.  The literature also tells us that it’s ok to fear change, while then admonishing us to overcome our fears in a 5, 6, 7 or even 8 step process. That’s all it takes. Follow the steps and you too, can be a changeling.

How did change become a commodity?  There are people making lots of money selling it.  Ways of planning it, managing it, communicating about it are captured in sexy looking models involving triangles, circles and looping arrows. Often animals do service in getting the message across without being too much in our face. It is an effective tool if you come from a culture where kiddies grew up listening to anthropomorphic stories of heroes and adventures.  And, interestingly, anthropologist Donald
Brown lists anthropomorphising (giving human character to animals) among his ‘fundamental universals’.  In other words, all cultures use such humanised animal stories. My two favourites are the mice and the little people in ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ and Kotter’s penguins in ‘My Iceberg is Melting’, but then my best bedtime stories involved animals and my day time playing did too.

Spencer Johnson’s ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ is of course not  great reading if you’re lactose intolerant and avoid the stuff at all costs, and so why would you enter a maze, looking for new cheese? But, it is still a compelling story about what happens
if you try to keep things as they are. Kotter’s penguins, on the other hand, offers a double-whammy to people like me: those interested in theories about change and also fascinated with global warming – whether it is a man-made phenomenon or a natural step in the cycle towards the next ice age.  (I didn’t like THAT movie particularly).

I’ve done my own fair share of consulting and training in managing change and loved it when my clients came close to embracing it, because it meant more work for me.   However, I sit here with the uncomfortable feeling that the commodity of change isn’t the same thing as the need to respond to challenges by changing something in our behaviour, our attitudes, and sometimes even our relationships.

Embracing something or someone to me represents an emotional and philosophical state:  I love, I trust, I appreciate, I am comforted, I feel safe, I feel at peace.  I cannot unconditionally embrace change.

The statistics are an important element in the selling of change and change management:  70% of change initiatives fail, so Kotter tells us, along with an excellent analysis of why that is so.  It gives the rest of us the fuel to fire up the argument that you need the tools to initiate and achieve the change you want, rather than to be the victim of someone else’s.

Now, in considering all this, this morning, I feel compelled to argue that much great change happens around us, in our lives and communities, despite not spending big bucks on change tools.  Sometimes it is a deliberate and determined choice, like the choice my son made at age 19 to eliminate milk and wheat from his diet; magically his allergies disappeared; and he discovered a field of nutritional and policy research that is central to his life and business philosophy.

Sometimes it is a choice forced on us by circumstances, such as being laid off or ending up in a job you didn’t want, but it being better than no job at all, we stick to it.   A friend of mine is undergoing chemo (again).  He posted a Facebook message yesterday, expressing his thanks for the little Cape white eyes (charismatic little South African birds) sucking the nectar from one of the indigenous flowering plants in his garden.  He learnt this habit of writing gratitude messages from a friend in the USA who’d made a practice of it over the years, leading up to Thanksgiving.  He’s discovered that the usual depression associated with the illness and the treatment hasn’t come back.  He has changed his response to his treatment and it no longer controls him.

Does that mean he embraces change? I don’t think so.  I think he simply did what he had to and is the better for it.

As for sticking to a job you don’t really want:  could I introduce you to an 8 step process that would bring you to embrace the change, or perhaps I could coach you so that you can arrive at your own insights into how to derive creative joy from something you never anticipated doing?  I’d much rather do the latter.  Sure I have tools in my coaching tool box.  One of them is to use animal analogies to explore what’s really important to you so that you can decide whether to make a go of the job or find some means of moving on.

We have been one of the most successful species on the planet (next to rats and cockroaches), because of our inherent ability to change and adapt.  We migrated from the plains of Africa and spread across the globe.We changed physiologically to protect ourselves against the climatic factors in the places we chose to settle, and we have turned our planet into a beehive of communication capabilities (while killing off bees and other species, at times unwittingly; at times wilfully). I posted a scanned photograph of my grandfather and his prize Hereford bull, Larry III on Facebook the other day.  A niece commented that neither subject of that photo could have anticipated being on the Internet.  No, a man born in a time before cars couldn’t have anticipated the Internet unless he was a science-fictionist.   He was a farmer.

 Well, come to think of it, he embraced change:  One day, while attending to his duties as a farm manager for a wealthy gold magnate in South Africa, he had occasion to go to the bank in the local town.   There the bank manager, Mr. Morkel,
encouraged him to stake a claim in the newly declared diamond fields of Licthenburg, and gave him some insider information about where the pipe of diamond-bearing stuff ran.  He employed a sprinter, with very specific instructions about which claim to aim for.  They got it.

They never looked back.  He bought vast tracts of farmland (including the ranch where Larry the bull lived and serviced the cows).  He established schools, he registered a company in which my mom was an equal shareholder despite being
a girl and the third-born, and he and my grandmother travelled around the world
by steam ship.  Together they established a dynasty – I continue to derive benefit from the traditions my grandmother inculcated in us and the monetary wealth they created together.  He diversified his crops and he practiced ecologically sound animal husbandry practices; his bushveld ranches were African paradises.  (Mind, he DID allow, or maybe require, the shooting of all the leopards on the ranches).

My Oupa (grandfather) embraced change. But he did it because it was in his nature, not because someone sold it to him.  I like to think it is a gene he’s passed on and I’ve passed on.

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