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Change begins with an ending

- Rowena Crosbie is president of Tero International  

 Typewriter_the end

 

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy;

for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves;

we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

Anatole France

 

Reflect on the major changes in your life. It could be a career change, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, marriage, divorce… 

Did the changes involve an element of loss? 

All changes, both positive and negative, begin with a loss. They first begin with letting go of the old.

William Bridges wrote about this intuitively logical notion in his book Managing Transitions. As Bridges describes it, transition is the emotional process we go through to get from something old to something new. Before you arrive at the new location, you must leave home, travel through what Bridges calls the “Neutral Zone” which is neither home nor the intended destination.

Leaders, not surprisingly, are notoriously focused on the new. They are victims of the erroneous thinking that change begins with something new. While, it’s tempting to think of change as the beginning of something new, this mistake in thinking is a leading cause of change failures.

In reality, or at least in our emotional reality (which tends to take precedence over “objective reality”); change begins with an ending. Before we can move into the new, we must first leave the old. Leaders who fail to recognize reality this lead change at their peril.

Leaving the old behind

Consider moving houses. To be sure, there is a day when the moving van (or your friends and a truck) transfer your possessions from the old to the new. However, the change, as anyone who has made it knows, involves more than the physical move. 

You begin with letting go of the old. Mourning the loss of the familiar. Thinking about the memories (even if they aren’t fond ones). Once you actually move, things don’t quickly fall into place. You wake up in the middle of the night in a slightly unconscious state in search of a glass of water and walk into a wall because the old house didn’t have a wall in that location. 

You miss the old, familiar place. 

You have to find a new route to work. You realize how challenging this is when one evening you are on your way home and unconsciously find yourself driving to the old house. You have to find a new grocery store and the new one doesn’t arrange their shelves like the old one. It takes more time.   

You miss the old, familiar place. 

If you made your move with a family, not only are you dealing with the process of change, you are also leading others on the journey. They miss friends and neighbors at the old location, the old school, the favorite hairdresser, dry cleaner, banker, physician. 

You miss the old, familiar place. 

Some people find the process of leaving the end behind so challenging that they will go to great lengths to hang on to the old. Consider people who drive a couple of hours to keep their relationship with their hairdresser, banker or doctor.

Even a positive change like the birth of a child requires us to give up the way things were.  Countless new mothers and fathers experience tremendous guilt as they know societal norms demand that they be euphoric at this wonderful new change. While they love the new life entrusted to their care, they also suffer in silence wondering if there is something wrong with them as they grieve the simplicity of the life left behind. Why didn’t anyone tell me how hard this was going to be?  Am I the only one feeling like this? 

Even in the case of a planned, positive change, you miss the old, familiar place. 

In the workplace

New processes and systems, technological advances, new teams, new leaders, new products, growth, down-sizings, acquisitions, restructurings… the change itself doesn’t seem to matter much. The one thing they all have in common is that, like the personal changes we make, individuals in the workplace first must leave the old comfort zone behind before moving to the new.

Leadership strategy

What can leaders do to address this reality?  Stop, pause and dignify the ending.  Celebrate where we came from and what we’ve achieved before we run too fast into the change ahead.  Mourn the past – even the parts we are happy to leave behind.

Some ideas include:

  • Celebration
  • Themed luncheons
  • Tell stories (do you remember when…)
  • Validate the old
  • Thank people for their contributions
  • Allow time for grieving

Dignifying the ending is an important tradition when someone has died. It is the purpose of funerals and celebrations of life. It is critical to dignify the ending before we can move into the new. Retirement parties are designed for the same purpose.

Leaders can learn lessons on leading change from contemplating these important traditions. 

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