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12 March 2024

Change is complex – let’s stop oversimplifying it

Written by
Bill Pullen

Changing behaviors or habits is a difficult, complex process. And yet we use language, both with ourselves and others, that seems to imply otherwise. We hear or say things like, “Just stop doing that…” “I just need to…” “I really should…” …as if it were as simple as just making the decision and starting to act in new ways. 

In so doing, we oversimplify what is actually a really complex process.

When I was struggling with addiction to alcohol and drugs, I heard messages like this all the time. The caring people around me meant well, but “just learn to control it” was not enough for me to dismantle the sense of myself and the life I had built around these addictions. Setting aside the physical component of addiction, which is a mountain within itself, using alcohol and drugs was wrapped up in my identity, my socialization, and even my work. There was so much more to it than just stopping a behavior.

While my experience with addiction may be a dramatic example, I see versions of this play out with the leaders I coach over and over and over again. They know changing their mental models and behavior isn’t easy, yet at times, they talk and act like it’s simple. When, in fact, change is neither simple nor easy. I see people beat themselves up or receive criticism from others because they haven’t “just done it already.” This ignores the underlying complexity that lies beneath such change.

For example, when I’m working with leaders who are moving up to more senior levels of an organization, they find the process a lot more challenging than they expect. They find themselves facing a new context with new demands placed on their time and attention. What I frequently hear from these leaders is, “While I thought I was ready, and in many ways I am, this is a different game, and the way I have to work now is dramatically different than it was in the past.” They have a completely new set of tasks that almost seem to contradict what they’re used to doing day to day, and they find it hard to let go. 

Why is this so hard for leaders? Why can’t they just…stop?

Change requires loss.

In order to honor the complexity of the changes we’re asking ourselves to make, we need to acknowledge that when traditional ways of thinking and acting are changed, a loss occurs

Building on the example above, someone stepping into a CEO role, for instance, now needs to step back, take an enterprise view, and invest in others as opposed to doing the work themselves. But they’ve spent so long doing that work that their identity and sense of competence are wrapped up in the work itself. Being successful in their new role means they must choose not to do this work. It’s a loss. But in that loss is the opportunity to open themselves up to possibilities and allow a new, more expansive part of themself to emerge, which generates further impact and effectiveness as leaders. It’s hard to let go because they’ve been conditioned and rewarded to be the “old way.” 

But one of the reasons it’s so hard to let go of the old is that the old wasn’t all bad. Even in the throes of my addiction, my underlying drive was to foster a sense of belonging and connection in the world. It was about relationships, and that was a beautiful thing, but I was going about it the wrong way. As I began my new life, it was important for me to have compassion for myself and recognize what parts of me were actually acting out of a kind of (albeit faulty) wisdom. 

Change requires emergence.

As I began my path toward a new life in sobriety, I wanted to know exactly where this new life was headed and what it was going to look like. I craved certainty in a very uncertain and ambiguous time. What I learned over time was that as I navigated the complexity of this period of my life, I needed to allow the future to emerge and approach my life with a posture of curiosity and wonder. I needed to experiment with new ways of being and learn as I went – a process that continues today. 

This same pattern plays out with leaders as well. They come to coaching and want to establish clear goals and outcomes, and they, too, want certainty and clarity about where they will end up. In truth, their future will emerge from what is unfolding, just as it does with each one of us, through a process of experimentation, reflection, and learning. In fact, we sometimes shortchange ourselves by being too rigid or fixed about what needs to happen, foreclosing on impactful possibilities for the future. 

Change requires connection.

Navigating this new life and all of its twists and turns is very difficult without the wisdom and support of others. Like many people in a Western, individualist context, I was brought up thinking self-reliance was a badge of honor. The implicit – and at times explicit – lessons of my youth were: don’t show emotions or weakness, don’t ask for help, and figure things out yourself. This mindset was almost the death of me. It wasn’t until I said the words, “I need help,” that my life began to change. Once I did so, I was surrounded by a group of people who modeled a kind love and fierce compassion that was supportive of me while also challenging me and holding me accountable. It was in such a space that I felt safe enough to allow growth and change to happen. 

I see this same pattern of rugged individualism play out with leaders at all levels of an organization. They fear looking or feeling vulnerable, so they think they need to know all the answers and find a solution to every problem, or people will think less of them. But the truth is, in the complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments we navigate in business, no one person can know the answer, and the only way forward is to invite input, perspective, and help from others. 

When we are going through change, the presence of another supportive person or people creates a relational field that allows the leader navigating the change to be vulnerable and experiment with new ways of being, thinking, and acting. It is in this relational space where people come together that deep transformation occurs. Connections and relationships can provide the much-needed feedback, perspective, (and dare we say – love?) leaders need in order to move out of their comfort zone to take on new challenges.

Change is multilayered and multifaceted. Acknowledging the costs of change helps us to understand that significant life shifts are not just about flipping a switch. When we learn that we need to go through a grief process, allow the process to reveal itself along the way, and, most importantly, lean into the love, compassion, and support of connections with others, we find ourselves committed to the journey of change rather than oversimplifying that which is truly complex.

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