Navigating Change Processes Successfully

You will hear me say this in this blog many times: the underlying dynamics of change at any level of system – individual, relational, team, organizational, national, planetary – are similar. Once a change leader begins to understand these fundamental underlying dynamics, their ability to navigate change rises exponentially. Given the state of our organizations and world, we need more change, not less, which means understanding these dynamics is critical.

A natural human tendency, when we are operating unconsciously from our ego, is to turn away from what we do not like and toward what we do like. We avoid pain and seek pleasure, and comfort is always high on our ego’s list of chosen states. This generates a number of challenges for navigating change processes.

Significant goals and breakthroughs always lie outside our comfort zones. They require us to stretch, risk, take new actions, or the old actions in new ways. If we simply keep doing what we’ve been doing in the same ways, we only achieve what we’ve already been able to achieve. We need to go outside our comfort zones to change and achieve more, but we unconsciously turn away from such “expansions” and habitually contract back to our old, but comfy ways. People do this; teams do this, organizations do this, as do nations and the world as a whole.

When we do step out of our comfort zones, we inevitably make mistakes. Why? Because it’s new, uncharted territory, and by definition, we haven’t figured it out yet. But we don’t like mistakes, so when they occur, we tend to turn away from them, cover them up, pretend they didn’t happen, blame them on someone selse. Our turning away from them negates learning, stifles progress, and ensures that we repeat them.

When we step outside our comfort zone, we feel fear, doubt, anxiety. Why?Again, because it’s new territory, and it is natural to be afraid in such a situation.  But we don’t like those feelings, so we turn away from them, deny them, cover them up. This causes us to lose focus as we subconsciously battle with these inner fears, making us less capable of dealing with the situation that is triggering the feelings. If we do move ahead, we under-perform, but often, we simply retreat to the familiar.

The key to navigating transformational change – at any level of system – is to learn to turn into the contraction, not away. This starts with us personally, and is the foundation of self mastery. This takes conscious awareness, because our ego will automatically and unconsciously go for comfort and keep us inside our comfort zone, away from the challenges required to achieve our goals. It takes courage and inner strength to face the fear or problem at hand. Mostly, it takes the ability to let in and feel the contracted feelings our ego wants us to avoid, for if we do not accept them (turn toward them and receive them), then our turning away will lead to turning away from the actions required to succeed in our change process.

Conscious change leaders know these dynamics. They know that they literally navigate change by listening for where in themselves and the larger systems the contractions are occuring. Then they take a deep breath or ten, turn toward those contractions, and step into the fire to deal with the personal, relational, team, or organizational challenge at hand.

Change management tools can help in these sitatuations, but their limiation is always that they tend to deal too superficially with what is happening and miss the underlying dynamics. And turning into these underlying dynamics with the understanding and talent to help them unravel and resolve is the path to unleashing greater potential in yourself, your stakeholders, and your organization.

Do you have this level of self mastery? Whatever your level today, keep developing this most essential talent. Your relations, team performance, organization, and world are counting on you to step way outside your comfort zone and contribute your best, and this is fundamentally how you do it. The world needs you to master this most essential conscious change leadership skill.


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Marshall School of Business
University of Southern California

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Senior Scholar in Residence
MSOD Program, American University
Organizational Change Consultant