Change is a normal condition of life, not an abnormal occurrence

Why is it so hard for people to change, even those of us who are dedicated to leading and bringing about change in others? | by Sam Chand

Good leaders may feel successful when they dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s, but great leaders understand that their lives and their leadership are inherently disruptive. They are thinking new thoughts, introducing new ideas, charting new paths, creating new products and services, finding new ways to connect with people, and, in all of this, creating a lot of tension before they resolve any of it. MBA professor and corporate culture expert John Mattone observes, “The comfort zone—yes, it feels good, but in reality is the most painful existence and is not going to get you anywhere. The best CEOs are constantly disruptive.”1

We don’t create disruption as a means of throwing people off balance so we can control them. That’s pathology, not leadership. Instead, we understand that a certain level of disturbance is inevitable as we move our organizations forward. King Solomon may not have been a farmer or a rancher, but he understood how to use analogies from the countryside. He wrote, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox” (Proverbs 14:4 ESV). If we want everything in our organizations to be neat and clean, we’ll miss out on the opportunity to use the creativity and strength of our brightest people—people whose contributions often create messes!

We have the responsibility to create a certain level of disruption by intentionally enlisting the best ideas and trying new directions. Otherwise, we will suffer disruption forced upon us by circumstances that seem beyond our control. Either we will lead boldly in the midst of disruption or it will crush us— it’s our choice.

I hope I’m disrupting your thinking. I want to push you to think about embracing the seasons of ambiguity and even welcoming them instead of believing there’s something tragically wrong when you don’t have all the answers. I want to make you feel uncomfortable...and like it! In fact, if you don’t feel resistant to this concept, I haven’t pushed hard enough.

I want you to think of me as a dentist and you’re in the chair. The closer I get to you and the exposed nerve with the drill in my hand, the more you squirm. If you get up and leave, you’ll still have that cavity and it will cause more harm. But if you overcome your resistance, stay in the chair, and give yourself to the process, we can address the problem so you can move on with your life.

Another analogy makes the same point: a fighter pilot knows he’s in the right spot when he’s getting anti-aircraft fire. If you’re not catching flack for your disruptive ideas, you’re not over your target yet. Keep flying.

Let me press a little more: Newton’s third law says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If your goal is to eliminate all disruption, you won’t move at all. If you move, if you rock the boat and make waves, you’ll get an equal and opposite reaction, at least from some people. Sometimes the resistance is your own sense that good leadership should create a smooth pond; this idea of disruptive leadership seems foreign, strange, and wrong. But often, the resistance comes from those who expect you to always give them smooth waters. Your job is to help them embrace disruption and ambiguity so real progress can happen.

Counselors, coaches, and great business leaders understand that resistance is unavoidable if organizations are going to move forward. It’s not a flaw and it’s not a sin. We don’t make progress personally without creating tension between what has been and what can be. The people in our organizations won’t move ahead until they learn to interpret their sense of uneasiness as an opportunity to be more creative and effective than ever. Our job is to reframe their resistance for them.

I’m not saying that every time others resist our ideas that we’re right and they’re slow and dense. They may have very good reasons to resist our ideas! Resistance forces us to think more deeply, communicate more clearly, determine if the path we’re on can be improved, and then help people see the benefits of a season of chaos.

Why Change Is So Hard

Some processes in nature are clear and direct: we plant an apple tree and if we care for it, we’ll get apples in the fall; if we have a drainage problem, we can dig a ditch to drain the water away. So why is it so hard for people to change, even those who are leaders and are dedicated to leading change in their organizations?

Pastor Charles Stone has made some remarkable observations about resistance to change, resistance that is rooted deep in the gray cells and synapses of our brains. If we understand the inner workings of our brains, we won’t be so surprised when we or others are so slow to do the very things that promise life, health, growth, and success.

Stone taps into research showing that two-thirds of the cells in our amygdala, the most basic part of our brains, are wired for freeze, fight, or flight. We pick up negative signals from our environment more readily than positive ones, so we’re normally and continually on guard. When this part of the brain is activated, people respond naturally with fear, which triggers the defensive reactions.

Preexisting emotions and perceptions are like a door in our brains that is open or closed to change. People who are already fearful, anxious, hurt, or ashamed have barricades over the door, shutting off any opportunity to change course and take courageous steps forward. No matter how many “convincing facts” the leader presents, the barricade effectively keeps the door closed.

Resistance to change becomes more acute as the event approaches. When the change was in the distant future, people may be open and even eager because it’s still just a concept. However, as the moment of implementation draws near, anxiety rises, fears multiply, and our minds run on overdrive imagining the costs more than the benefits. At this point, people ask more questions, but often to find a way out, not to move ahead. Stone observes, “Uninformed optimism gives way to informed pessimism.”2

As we age, the wiring in our brains becomes more rigid, so we’re less open to change. The caricature of the grumpy old man who refuses to consider even the slightest positive change has more than a grain of truth to it. We gradually become more fixed in our thinking and established habits of a lifetime make it difficult to consider new possibilities.

Our brains produce several chemicals that heighten our sense of happiness, contentment, and pleasure: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. We naturally move toward activities that release these chemicals and we naturally move away from those that block them. Our brains usually interpret change as a threat, which blocks these chemicals, and our brains interpret the opportunity to escape from change as a signal to release them.

Thus, resistance to change is not clearly reasoned and carefully considered. It’s the brain’s way of warning us that change might be dangerous. We can overcome this natural freeze, fight, or flight reaction by creating an environment where people feel safe and appreciated, releasing the positive chemicals in the brain, which then opens the door to talk about the benefits of change. Speak not only to the people sitting in front of you; speak to the inner workings of their brains.3

The Task of Reframing

I’ve seen plenty of people who endured long seasons of discouragement, even depression, because they didn’t know how to reframe failure or heartache. The painful events consumed their thinking and soon eradicated all the joy in their lives. In this negative, discouraging mind-set, even great success gave them no more than momentary relief. They were in a long winter of discontent, but without hope of spring.

When we’re in a season of hard times, it’s easy to lose perspective. We need to do something that is the opposite of our natural inclination—we want to isolate and hide, but instead we need to find a couple of people who will walk through it with us. We need people who exhibit three vital characteristics: competence, candor, and commitment. They need to be experienced and skilled in helping people who are struggling. We don’t call Uncle Harold because he’s the only one we can think of. We make a short list of people who have a track record of providing true wisdom. We look for people who will tell us the truth—the positive truth about our strengths and God’s love, but also the hard truth of where we’ve drifted off true north. And we need people who are committed to us even when we’re resistant, even when we avoid them, and even when we’re so slow to change. These are people who, as one leader described them, always let us in but never let us down.

Many people in this dark season feel overwhelmed by stress. Sometimes, the pressure and loss happened in a flash, but more often, it accrued slowly... so slowly the leader didn’t notice until the damage was done. Stress is the perception of helplessness in dealing with serious demands. It doesn’t exist in isolation; it’s always the product of difficulties with people and events. The response to those difficulties depends on the leader’s sense of adequacy to deal with them. That’s why some leaders become stronger by going through hard times and others falter. Popular culture says the answer is to retreat, escape, and avoid the stress. That may be helpful for a temporary respite, but it won’t address the underlying problem. Leaders need to think better so they can act better and then, sooner or later, they’ll probably feel better.

Losses are a fact of life. As long as we’re above ground, we’ll suffer heartaches, betrayal, and failure of one kind or another. One of our challenges is to accurately assign responsibility. Many people feel guilty over things they didn’t control and many deny responsibility for wrongs they committed. We can’t move forward until we sort these things out, grieve what we couldn’t control, forgive those who wronged us, and ask for forgiveness for the wrongs we’ve committed. We’re all deeply flawed, but we can have a new identity as God’s loved, forgiven, and adopted children. As Winston Churchill said, “We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow worm.”

If we look hard enough, we’ll realize there is redemptive value in every failure—whoever caused it. If we learn to think rightly about it, we’ll have realistic expectations, we’ll learn to see stresses through a hopeful lens, and we’ll live with more peace and security. This will give us the platform to help those around us reframe the seasons of difficulty they endure. Those we view as heroes today aren’t considered great because of unbroken success, but because they overcame crushing failure and adversity.

We’re Mature and Gaining Wisdom When...

We don’t necessarily become mature with advancing birthdays. I know some young people who are mature far beyond their years and I know some older people who act like children. I know because I’m sometimes one of them. How do we know we’re gaining wisdom? Here are some indications:

We Listen to People Who Hold Different Views

This includes people with political persuasions, business philosophies, leadership goals, and theological perspectives that are different than ours. We don’t have to agree with them and we don’t need to buy what they’re selling, but we can show the respect of an open ear. To find out more, we ask second and third questions. We learn and grow when we’re exposed to people who have different perspectives. All growth is about exposure.

We Love People Who Aren’t Very Lovable

Who do you think of when you read that sentence? Virtually all of us have faces flash in front of us. Yes, we can love them, but everybody is unlovable at one time or another—even you and me.

We Realize We Need to Submit to Others’ Leadership

We won’t mature in wisdom and strength on our own. We need to follow a leader so we can absorb the lessons they have learned. Business leaders often recognize the importance of a mentor and they attend conferences to sharpen their thinking. Pastors too often try to lead alone. Everyone needs a coach or mentor—no exceptions. It doesn’t have to be someone in town, in the same field, or in the same faith tradition, but it must be someone who has earned our respect so we are willing to be open and honest.

We Reframe Stress and Failure So We Can Learn from These Times

Our perceptions of success and failure are downloaded in our brains from the time we’re small children. They don’t change easily, but they can certainly change. As we’ve seen, learning to reframe adversity is one of the most important things leaders will ever do. It will radically affect their attitudes, their relationships, their passion, and their health.

We Think More Expansively and Ask Better Questions

Immature people are thinking about what they’re going to say while others are talking, but a mature person is fully present, seeking to understand before seeking to be understood. We are no longer “locked in” to a single way to see a person, an opportunity, a problem, or an event. We ask plenty of questions and over time, our questions become more incisive. We spend time with people who have very different experiences and perspectives instead of only hanging out with people who agree with us about virtually everything.

When was the last time you were in an uncomfortable conversation? What about it made you feel uncomfortable? Did you run away, fight back, or slow down and engage the person more fully?

We often begin our tenure as leaders full of vision and enthusiasm, but over time, we can lose heart. Many leaders I meet think back on “the good old days” before the stresses and strains began to take a heavy toll on them.

Wise, mature leaders don’t deny the presence of failure and countless other difficulties, but they find ways to keep refilling their vision tanks. They’re not surprised when the level of their passion and enthusiasm goes down; it’s a fact of life. But they’re always reading great books and articles, listening to podcasts, and talking to other leaders to stay filled and overflowing.

All of us have room to grow, to learn, and to mature a bit more—maybe a lot more. I appreciate men and women who have the courage to admit they’re still in process and, in fact, they’ll always be in process.

  1. John Mattone, speaking at The World Business Forum, cited in CEO Magazine, May 2016,
  2.  Charles Stone, Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 145.
  3. Charles Stone, “8 Neurological Reasons Why Church Change Is So Difficult,” Outreach Magazine, March 5, 2018, 8-neurological-reasons-church-change-difficult.html.

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