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How to Get Better at Dealing With Change

[Originally published in Harvard Business Review]

Change is an unavoidable constant in our work lives. Sometimes it’s within our control, but most often it’s not. Our jobs or roles change — and not always for the better. Our organizations undergo reorgs and revamp their strategies, and we need to adjust.

Fortunately, there are ways to adapt to change, and even to take advantage of it.

1. Find the humor in the situation. Trying to find a funny moment during an otherwise unfunny situation can be a fantastic way to create the levity needed to see a vexing problem from a new perspective. It can help others feel better as well.

Pioneering humor researcher Rod A. Martin, who has studied the effects of different styles of humor, has found that witty banter, or “affiliative humor,” can lighten the mood and improve social interaction. Just make sure it’s inclusive and respectful. A good rule of thumb is that other people’s strife is no laughing matter, but your own struggles can be a source of comedic gold. Gold, Jerry. Gold! 

2. Talk about problems more than feelings. One of the most common myths of coping with unwanted changes is the idea that we can “work through” our anger, fears, and frustrations by talking about them a lot. This isn’t always the case. In fact, research shows that actively and repeatedly broadcasting negative emotions hinders our natural adaptation processes.

That’s not to say you should just “suck it up” or ignore your troubles. Instead, call out your anxiety or your anger at the outset of a disorienting change so that you are aware of how it might distort your thinking or disrupt your relationships. Then look for practical advice about what to do next. By doing so, you’ll zero in on the problems you can solve, instead of lamenting the ones you can’t.

3. Don’t stress out about stressing out. Our beliefs about stress matter. As Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal argues in The Upside of Stress, your reaction to stress has a greater impact on your health and success than the stress itself. If you believe stress kills you, it will. If you believe stress is trying to carry you over a big obstacle or through a challenging situation, you’ll become more resilient and may even live longer.

When you start to feel stressed, ask yourself what your stress is trying to help you accomplish. Is stress trying to help you excel at an important task, like a sales presentation or a big interview? Is it trying to help you endure a period of tough market conditions or a temporary shift in your organizational structure? Is it trying to help you empathize with a colleague or a customer? Or is stress to trying to help you successfully exit a toxic situation?

Stress can be a good thing — if you choose to see it that way.

4. Focus on your values instead of your fears. Reminding ourselves of what’s important to us — family, friends, religious convictions, scientific achievement, great music, creative expression, and so on — can create a surprisingly powerful buffer against whatever troubles may be ailing us.

In a series of studies spanning more than a decade, researchers led by Geoffrey Cohen and David Sherman have shown how people of all ages in a range of circumstances, from new schools and new relationships to new jobs, can strengthen their minds with a simple exercise: spending 10 minutes writing about a time when a particular value you hold has positively affected you.

The technique works because reflecting on a personal value helps us rise above the immediate threat, and makes us realize that our personal identity can’t be compromised by one challenging situation.

5. Accept the past, but fight for the future. Even though we are never free from change, we are always free to decide how we respond to it.

Viktor Frankl championed this idea after returning home from three horrific years in Nazi death camps. He discovered that his mother, brother, wife, and unborn child were all dead. Everything in his life had changed. All that he loved was lost. But as fall became winter and winter gave way to spring, Frankl began to discover that even though he could never go back to the life he once had, he was still free to meet new friends, find new love, become a father again, work with new patients, enjoy music, and read books. Frankl called his hope in the face of despair “tragic optimism.”

Frankl’s story is an extreme example, of course, but that’s all the more reason why we should find inspiration from it. If we fixate on the limitations of a specific change, we inevitably succumb to worry, bitterness, and despair.

Instead, we should choose to accept the fact that change happens, and employ our freedom to decide what to do next.

6. Don’t expect stability. In the late 1970s a researcher at the University of Chicago named Salvatore Maddi began studying employees at Illinois Bell. Soon after, the phone industry was deregulated, and the company had to undergo a lot of changes. Some managers had trouble coping. Others thrived. What separated the two groups?

The adaptive leaders chose to view all changes, whether wanted or unwanted, as an expected part of the human experience, rather than as a tragic anomaly that victimizes unlucky people. Instead of feeling personally attacked by ignorant leaders, evil lawmakers, or an unfair universe, they remained engaged in their work and spotted opportunities to fix long-standing problems with customer service and to tweak antiquated pricing structures.

In contrast, Maddi found that the struggling leaders were consumed by thoughts of “the good old days.” They spent their energy trying to figure out why their luck had suddenly turned sour. They tried to bounce back to a time and a place that no longer existed.

7. Pursue meaning more than happiness.

Nietzsche said “he who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how.” That’s probably why almost every researcher mentioned above has consistently found that the most adaptive people are those who commit themselves to the people, causes, and institutions surrounding them. Change can be confusing and unsettling. The truth is that we won’t always understand why change happens to us as a result of decisions made by our bosses, our competitors, our customers, government regulators, Mother Nature, God Almighty, or the invisible hand of the market.

But in response to the confusion, highly adaptive people do not retreat to their happy place. Instead, they pursue outer purpose and leap into the fray. Viktor Frankl discovered this strange truth during the Holocaust. By doubling down on their commitment to the care and health of other people, adaptive people restore a stable sense of meaning in their lives even in the most senseless and chaotic situations. The more troubling the situation, the more heroic they become, because they believe that the darkest situations give their inner lights a chance to shine the brightest.

 

Although each of these seven techniques requires different skills to pull off — and you’ll probably gravitate toward some more than others — there’s one thing that you must do if you want to be more successful at dealing with change: accept it.

Ever heard that”70% of change initiatives fail?” It’s the most popular (and poisonous) myth in change management. Get the truth here.

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