Change Management Lessons: Surprise Breeds Inaction

Life lessons sometimes hit me in a delayed fashion. Reflecting on two experiences in my life – separated by about two years – reminded me of a valuable lesson for leaders of organizations facing change.

Situation Number One:

About two years ago, I was walking through a convention center with my friend, colleague, and co-author, Kevin Eikenberry, and we came upon two people standing at the top of an unmoving escalator. As we approached, we expected them to start walking down it. They didn’t. They just stood there and stared at the unmoving steps.

They didn’t move, and we couldn’t pass them.

As I stood behind them, I grew frustrated with their inaction.

After 10 or 15 seconds that felt like 10 or 15 minutes to me, they looked at each other, shrugged, and began to walk down the “stairs.”

Situation Number Two:

Driving my car into the neighborhood where Kevin lives, I came upon road construction vehicles that slowed me down and partially blocked my view of the frontage property. Pulling to the left side of the road and slowly passing the paving equipment parked on the right, I had a fleeting thought that I had entered the wrong neighborhood. Despite having entered this neighborhood many times over the last few years, it suddenly looked wrong, and I briefly questioned whether I was in the right place or not. In that moment, I quickly considered turning around at the first opportunity.

Both situations reveal a common problem leaders face in times of change. When confronted with uncertainty or unfamiliarity – when a situation or surrounding looks different from what they expect to see – people freeze. They lock-up, stop moving, and impede progress.

Many leaders see this initial response, and grow frustrated with their team like I grew frustrated by the initially unmoving people at the top of the escalator.

The key point, though, is that the people in the escalator example eventually moved without prodding or prompting from me. Once they evaluated and understood the situation, they moved.

Wise leaders recognize, understand, and anticipate this response. Rather than push changes quickly and get angry with people, they make allowances for this normal human reaction. They do everything in their power to reduce uncertainty by communicating more often, more thoroughly, and more personally. They also give people as much time as possible to understand the change before resorting to “do it or else” strategies.

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