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Changing of the Guard

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My graduate nonprofit class spent a great deal of time today talking about change. It got me thinking about how change can be harnessed, how people react to it, study it, and how the concept of it is used everywhere from altering school board decisions to winning presidential elections.


Human beings are naturally resistant to change. We are creatures of habit and crave the comfortable security of our same-old, same-old comfort zones.


I’ve written before about the changes that the public relations industry is going through and how we must either adapt or be left behind. This post delves a little deeper into the process an individual (PR pro or otherwise) must go through when confronting change on a large scale, whether they are taking on a new client, electing a new president, accepting a new position or simply deciding that maybe your old ways of doing things are a little outdated and need a face-lift.


There are a couple things that one must take into consideration first, when contemplating a large-scale change within their current organization.


Create readiness. NEVER spring a sudden change upon staff or clients. You set yourself up for failure by doing this and may find yourself the victim of mutiny (or as it is called in the civilized world, a hostile takeover).


Show, don’t tell. Provide real examples; show the discrepancies between what works and what doesn’t. Having examples of successful organizations or firms that implemented similar changes are a huge plus and a strong motivational tool for those on the fence. Let them see how they will benefit and then on the flip side, provide examples of those which have remained stuck, with little innovation. The more extreme the distance between the two examples, the better tool this will be.


Okay, so you have implemented your changes. Excited, you expect big things, but there is just one problem—not everyone is on board. Now what?


Overcoming Resistance
There are three types of resistance to change: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.


Cognitive resistance usually manifests itself in the most frustrating way. It is hard to identify and can be a real challenge when trying to educate your clients/friends/constituency or whatever. This is the person who smiles and nods and then politely ignores everything you have to say.


Emotional resistance has deeper roots and is harder to identify, but has some telling signals. It is generally based on years of decision-making and deep-seated convictions that will cause a person to shout, cry, or become overwhelmed. It can be tough to remain calm, because an emotional person will look for you to be reactionary. Don’t play that game. You won’t win. Just be steady and tow the line.


Behavioral is the easiest resistance to spot—usually because the person is either screaming in your face, or if you are really lucky, throwing garbage or animal parts on you. Do not engage in retaliation. EVER. You will never appear to be the victor. As with those who cry and scream, remain calm, walk away, and keep your finger’s crossed that eventually they will come to at least agree to disagree without any obvious sabotage.


So in light of all this, what do you do? Here is some information that will hopefully help you get through it, without having a nervous breakdown.


My place of employment is fairly resistant to change. It is still run primarily by men in their fifties who look at me like I’ve grown a second head when I start talking about social networking and blogs. To be fair, they like the idea of it all, they just don’t really get it, or how it can help their bottom line. Anyways …


There are three stages of change, much like the stages of grief. My professor did an awesome job of communicating the idea to us using the analogy of a sky-diver. First you make a decision, get over your fear, whatever. Then you have to go to the place and go through the safety course and then actually get on the plane. Lastly, you have to jump. That’s a big one, involving a huge range of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral sparks that all have to come together in your brain just right for you to actually get out the door of that airplane.


The first stage, oddly enough, is the ending stage. This is where you are acknowledging that the way things have always been done is coming to an end. In my industry and many others, this is known as the “changing of the guard.” It is a tough time for many. Letting go of your comfort level can be extremely difficult. You can help your employees and clients through this time by providing adequate support, additional resources for information, and showing examples of those who have successfully gone before.


(This is assuming that you are not the first! If so, then you just have to go for it or sit back and wait for someone else to fall on his or her face.)


The second stage is the neutral stage. In this stage, you have pretty much accepted that things are changing, but you are not quite “there” yet. You are not fully opposed anymore, but you are not fully on-board either. You still have doubts. This stage is crucial. Think of the swing states in the election, the undecided voters. This is your chance to really shine and show what you are made of, and why the change will be so beneficial. This stage is all about showing, reinforcing, and providing support. You must be prepared for setbacks, and it is not easy. You will have backsliders, but if you persist, you can and will reach the next stage…


Lastly, you have the beginning stage. Ahh … new beginnings. Doesn’t everyone just love the honeymoon stage? Everyone is excited, and anything seems possible. You mustn’t lose sight however that you are not the first person to implement change. It is a never-ending cycle of slowly fixing a system that is broken or appears to be now, but wasn’t always that way. Like a clock with a million tiny parts, it might take some time and effort to figure out not only what is wrong, but after fixing it, how to put it all back together again. It doesn’t always work the way you think it should, but that doesn’t make it wrong either. You may just have to modify your perception of what is “right” and “wrong.”


It is important to remember that real change takes time. Just as with all the excited people (me included) who got Obama elected, I can really feel that there is a fervor in the air that is truly palpable. Change is possible, but you still must go through the process. Nothing good is ever easy.


We, as a nation, must go through these steps of change together and my hope is that we make it through the tough times in order to truly celebrate a new beginning.

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