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Change is difficult and ambiguous, but necessary for professional survival and leadership, writes organisational psychologist RACHEL SETTI.

Change is neither simple nor comfortable – quite the contrary. It is perhaps why time and again we see corporations suffer as they respond too slowly to market forces, and why individuals fail to thrive through lack of proactivity.

If we don’t change, we don’t progress. Worse still, if we don’t evolve, we regress. Why? Because the external world is constantly changing (financial climate, global developments, technological processes), so by virtue of standing still we move backwards.

I’d like to reflect on how leaders make effective behavioural change. Management scholar and psychoanalyst Manfred Kets De Vries says leaders successfully transition when they engage with change on both an emotional and cognitive level. An intellectual recognition of the need for change does not suffice; it must be matched by an emotional impetus.

For many, this is when the pain of not changing outweighs the comfort of maintaining the status quo. For example, a partner in a Sydney firm knew his communication style was less than ideal, as was evidenced by his disgruntled team. However, it was only when he reached crisis point (triggered by a breakdown in communication with his teenage daughter) that the pain of maintaining the status quo exceeded the pain of change. At that moment, both his cognitive and emotional commitment to addressing the issue were activated in unison and his long-awaited motivation to make a change surfaced at last.

It takes commitment

Commitment to change is just the starting point. The next stage requires insight into what needs to shift. Central to this phase is the tenacity to try new things and the courage to let go of behaviours and attitudes that once served a good purpose, but now impede progress. It can be a time of uncertainty, confusion and intense emotion, because much of what was perceived as absolute may be thrown into disarray.

Leaders need to enhance self-awareness by reflecting on questions such as: What are my objectives? What is my vision for the future? What are my barriers to success?

Applying a growth mindset (a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck) is essential. This refers to an attitude or belief that one has the capacity to change and progress, rather than assuming old habits die hard. In the case of the partner I mentioned above, he initially presented a closed mindset by making statements such as, “I’m not good at communication, that’s how I’ve always been”. However, once he adopted a growth mindset and committed to change, he was able to view the situation through a more fluid and proactive lens.

Embedding new behaviours completes any transition. This is when once new and foreign behaviours become automatic and second nature. It is often difficult to completely let go of old ways of thinking and behaving, and certainly under pressure it is easy to relapse into old habits. However, applying a growth mindset means you recognise the “lapse” when it happens, and correct it as soon as you can.

When you face transition, remember to recognise (rather than avoid) your concerns and challenges. Seek feedback to enhance your understanding of the situation, make a plan and, above all, accept that the change journey may confront lifelong assumptions. Expect that previous points of clarity may become muddied, and that new insights and long-lasting changes will be achieved over time.


Practical tips for successful transitions

  • Concentrate on factors you can directly influence, rather than worrying about variables you cannot change.
  • Set yourself incremental objectives and visualise what the change will look and feel like for you and others. If you believe you can change, you will.
  • View errors and setbacks as learning opportunities, explore what can be gleaned from every experience. Apply a growth mindset.
  • Seek out a support network of people you trust. Draw upon them to help you reflect and give you authentic feedback. Maintain openness to their feedback, even when they tell you things you don’t want to hear.