Someone very wise once said that the only thing that’s constant is change. How true that is. Think about the changes that have taken place in the world during your lifetime. And it seems as if the rate of change is speeding up. If you were born at the turn of the century, you were born before man had learned how to fly. But today, space travel and supersonic flight are not only realities, but they are commonplace. Given the advent of computers and the myriad uses we are finding for them, we can scarcely imagine what changes are likely to occur in the lives of children born today.
People tend to think change is a modern phenomenon, something peculiar to our culture and advanced technology. However, the only difference between our times and those of the past is simply that we know more about changes and are more aware of them than our ancestors. The electronic advances in information transmission mean that while it took six weeks in 1805 for the news of Nelson’s victory at the battle of Trafalgar to reach Canada, the details of a new Canadian budget are reported and begin to have an impact on world money markets within 60 seconds of their announcement in Ottawa.
Since change is inevitable and ever-present, why do some people complain either about the changes themselves or the speed at which they are taking place? Why are some organizations and people so reluctant to change, so resistant to anything new? These attitudes are all quite natural, even though they may frustrate those who welcome change and want the latest gadget. The reasons for resistance lie in the fact that all change is stressful; it is often more comfortable to stay with the familiar than to try to learn something new. And some people and organizations are more adaptable, more favorably disposed to change, and better able to cope with it than are others. Let’s look at each of these elements in order.
The great Canadian stress researcher Dr. Hans Selye found that coping with constant change can cause stress in any animal and that too much stress can even lead to death. Doctors T. H. Holmes and R. Rahe developed a well-known test that measures the amount of stress brought on by change and predicts whether or not you are likely to become ill as a result. In essence, change can make you sick and some people are sick of change.
Our greatest fear is fear of the unknown, so naturally we are anxious when confronted with changes and more comfortable when things stay the same. This is particularly true when the changes are foisted upon us and we are asked – or forced – to adapt to them by learning new skills, using new processes or pieces of equipment, or simply moving to a new department, home, or school. And it is even worse when change and the unknown go hand in hand. Sometimes this happens when a company is reducing its size and employees don’t know whether they will be fired next or forced to adapt to new circumstances.
The advent of computers has probably affected more people and organizations than any other modern change. But for some people and organizations alike, successful adaptation begins with a state of mind. It also involves the ability to learn new skills and develop expertise in managing the change process. Studies have shown that people who seek and welcome change are more successful in adapting to it because of their readiness to consider it. These “psychologically hardy” people have three important attributes: they enjoy accepting challenges and respond well to them; they like to exercise some control over their lives and environment; and once they decide on a course of action, they stay with it until it has been completed. But anyone can possess this state of mind.
The ability to learn new skills is related to the management of the change process. Knowing that people fear the unknown, can adapt better if they have some control, and don’t like to have changes sprung on them, you should introduce changes in a slow, methodical way so everyone is informed, prepared, and involved. Adequate lead time, advance preparation, and appropriate training can eliminate much of the natural resistance to change. If you know change is coming, then prepare for it. We are adaptable creatures, but sometimes we forget to give ourselves a chance to get ready. Alvin Toffler, the author of Future Shock, suggests that we can avoid the trauma of rapid change, or future shock, by recognizing that change is inevitable and somewhat predictable and by preparing in advance for it.
People, systems, and organizations that resist change are headed for problems. Accepting the inevitability of change and getting ready for it are not only healthier and less stressful, but they enable us to be happier and more productive, as well.