When we think about change or learning how to do something new, we often look to our peers to help us learn from their experiences. We ask our mentors for guidance, read memoirs from industry leaders, subscribe to their articles, and try to absorb as much as we can to help us feel prepared for the uncertainty of new beginnings. But one of the most obvious and impactful sources of learning is often overlooked, simply because its the hardest to face. Learning from ourselves. Reflecting on our pain and pinpointing where we went wrong on our journey can spiral into a whirlwind of self-pity, which isn’t exactly ideal. But, as the famous saying goes, “we learn from our mistakes”, exploring these pain points and dissecting our challenges is when you truly begin to understand how to move forward. Talk about tough love.
The legendary Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, tells us that our most painful moments are also our most important. One of my favourite quotes from him is “pain plus reflection equals progress”. Pain is something we try to avoid, instinctively and consciously, so building our relationship with it is not easy. It practically goes against what we’re programmed to do. By now you’re probably wondering if this blog is going to be an inspirational dialogue about coping with your pain—it’s not. Well, at least not entirely. This fundamental principle that Dalio preaches is the same formula that launches every project, there’s a business problem to solve and part of the journey towards the right solution means understanding your organization’s relationship with pain. So how do you identify the barriers to change and these sources of resistance? This is a tough question to answer, so let’s look at it through a more familiar lens.
Think about our current business climate. The COVID-19 crisis has forced so many businesses to pivot to a virtual workplace overnight. There are so many new barriers developing rapidly. The most successful organizations have adapted because their leaders and people both understand the pain points the disruption is introducing.
If you’re looking for the SparkNotes version of my explanation, take a quick peek at my video below on our new Harbinger YouTube channel. Otherwise, I’ll take you through the reasoning behind my answer in the rest of this blog.
When we look at the amazing strides businesses are making during the COVID-19 disruption, we can learn a lot about how an organization’s relationship with pain determines how they act. For the first time for many generations, we have crystal clarity around what and how big the barriers are—keeping the doors open and the lights on. Consider this. Transformations to remote or virtual workplaces are historically planned over months or even years, but in this very unique situation, the typical barriers to change were eliminated and businesses pivoted over the course of just a few days.
So, what does this tell us about pain? When pain is acute and sharp, it gets our immediate attention and creates a burning platform for us to act. This acute pain is what drives our immediate responses. We pivot fast because our organizations are experiencing something incredibly intense.
Acute v. Chronic
So how do we harness the power of our pain responses when we aren’t faced with a global pandemic? It’s important to remember our psychological responses aren’t just tied to intensity, but also to type. Consider physical pain for a moment:
Acute—most often the result of a trauma—often accidental (e.g. broken ankle) but can be tied to a medical treatment (e.g. surgery) as well.
Chronic—may have began as acute but is pain that persists. The textbook definition is pain that lasts longer than 12 weeks, but certainly, it can last for months or even years.
Think about your own personal experiences with acute and chronic pain. How did you react when you broke your arm or strained your back? Drawing from my own experience—and likelihood to seek out help—acute pain wins every time. Chronic, while potentially as intense, offers me the option to simply suffer. Resign myself to my “new normal”.
Now extend the analogy a little further to our workplace transformations. What types of pain get your attention? What types of pain should be getting your attention?
The Big Barrier
Here’s the first lesson. Pain is a messenger. We need to listen. If we don’t, we’re surrounding ourselves with invisible barriers.
Confront pain—don’t avoid it. Dalio says it best,
“Every time you confront something painful, you are at a potentially important juncture in your life—you have the opportunity to choose healthy and painful truth or unhealthy but comfortable delusion. The irony is that if you choose the healthy route, the pain will soon turn into pleasure. Pain is the signal.”
Ray Dalio, Principles, Pg. 153
That said, don’t forget about the second half of the equation. You need to reflect. Reflecting on pain and challenge is where we truly start to develop a plan of action to address our barriers to change. Reflecting doesn’t have to last for days, weeks or months. Consider the very limited time businesses had to reflect on the changes they’re making amidst all the COVID disruption. For many, they had no more than 24 hours. But it was enough to acknowledge the situation and map out the path forward. They fast-tracked their change by immediately mobilizing a crisis response team whose sole responsibility was to seek out the challenges, contemplate options, then act.
Breaking Down Barriers
Now for the second lesson. Organizations don’t change, people do. When we are willing to acknowledge the pain and move through and beyond, it’s done one person at a time. That means every person has a slightly different context and, very likely, different barriers. To break down those barriers, you need to understand the unique circumstances each individual faces. You might argue, this is the silver lining in such a large percentage of the workforce now working from home. We are all seeing behind the curtain. In the pre-COVID world, people compartmentalized how they acted at work and how they acted at home. Suddenly those worlds have blurred. Normally, we don't know all of our people's responsibilities—now we’re seeing it firsthand through Zoom. Yet, we are reacting with compassion when life happens. We are leading with empathy. We have adapted, encouraging each other to understand people's context. It’s critical to remember that we can’t make assumptions about people’s pain or assume that their experiences are the same as our own.
Change happens at the individual level and each person will have different barriers to overcome in their transformation journey.
Take a look at Harbinger’s change adoption curve, it illustrates the different stages of change your people might be going through.
In order for people to successfully accept and adopt change, they need to know the answers to these questions:
What is the nature of the change?
Why is the change happening?