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A case of sink or swim

It can be easy to feel uncomfortable in a new role or when asked to work in unfamiliar areas. Paul Gilbert outlines a ten-point plan for dealing successfully with change.

I once had a coffee with an in-house lawyer new into her first role; she was interesting and thoughtful and her conversation was engaging and full of optimism, but then she said something that made me pause for thought.

She said: “I am really uncomfortable doing new things; I always feel that I am so much out of my depth”.

As a familiar metaphor “out of my depth” is an easy to use and every day turn of phrase, but pause for a moment to reflect on these words; taken literally they carry a significant burden and are laden with discomfort.

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The phrase, for me, conjures an image of flailing limbs in a hostile sea, lungs bursting with pain and a helpless surrender to a certain end. These words “out of my depth” therefore seem to indicate the sort of deep-seated and personal discomfort that would travel to the pit of one’s stomach in an instant.

Such innocuous words may be, but such horrible connotations; no wonder the newly appointed in-house lawyer was reluctant to try new things if it made her feel out of her depth.

The fear of change which she was indicating, both at an organisational level and for very many of us as individuals, is a widespread and very real phenomenon. To be good at change therefore we need more than to be able to articulate why change is potentially a good thing, we also need to plan to overcome this almost phobic reflex response to the thought of change.

In short, we need a different way of thinking, a different metaphor.

How would we feel, for example, if we were not really out of our depth at all? What if we were absolutely at the same depth we normally operate in? Would it not appear a more comfortable experience if we could be convinced of this as a new reality?

I am convinced that for most changes we make (or are forced to make), it is not the depth that has changed, but the fact that we are swimming in unfamiliar waters where the landmarks on the shoreline are different.

And if that is the case, we are not going to drown; we will be perfectly fine in fact and we will have all the skills and the experience we need to survive in our new surrounds and maybe even to thrive.

Consider this thought (and a different metaphor again) when you drive your car to a new place, to somewhere you have never been before, you can still physically drive the car – you have not forgotten how to steer or how to change gear; but you may have to concentrate a little more and you may have to prepare the way a little more thoroughly as well.

The discomfort we feel by labelling how we feel as “out of our depth” effectively elevates change from being, in my driving analogy, a need for a little more concentration as we look for somewhere to park, to a near death experience in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. (And that is also now a mixed metaphor!)

So how should we combat this fear of change?

I would like to suggest a ten point comfort blanket. Ten points not to falsely reassure, but to put into context what most change is really about. Ten points to help us manage our own emotional response to change.

  1. While all change can be described in terms of negative outcomes like more work, more disruption, unknown consequences etc, it is also true that most change can be described with positive consequences as well. Change teaches us to adapt, to see opportunity, to develop skills and so on. Change itself is a potentially a very positive experience, as Albert Einstein said: “There is nothing that is a more certain sign of insanity than to do the same thing over and over again and expect the results to be different…”
  2. Change is also inevitable in any event – it is a constant in our lives and we cope every single day with any amount of it. Work priorities move, supermarkets run out of something we want, the garage is closed on the way home, the TV schedulers move the kick-off time of the football…etc. Change is not a problem for any of us, but what we are less good at is unfamiliar change.
  3. Unfamiliar change takes us by surprise and often causes three responses – to flee, freeze or fight. All three responses, however, are emotional and obstructive and none of them help us deal with either the change process or the consequences of change. If they become a pattern of behaviour we will always struggle. Knowing this is the start of dealing with it differently.
  4. Change is rarely destructive of itself. The fact that we may feel somewhat uncomfortable is often the necessary prerequisite for personal development and progress; while being comfortable can be, conversely, indicative of a slow decline into complacency and decay.
  5. That is not to say, however that change in every instance is necessarily a good thing. Change for its own sake might well be disruptive and change must always be well planned, well communicated and well managed. Therefore we should not accept change in an unthinking way and we must preserve a reasoned opportunity to push back.
  6. Sometimes, for example, we also make the mistake of evaluating the benefits of change, but ignoring the benefits of the status quo. When evaluating the impact of change, therefore, we must also evaluate the impact of the status quo. By developing our understanding of the reality of our current circumstances we can better inform the debate (for or against) change, but without the emotional, destructive response. Relevant questions are: Is the status quo rewarding, challenging and fun? Is the status quo a permanent stable state or is it too merely temporary? Do our colleagues and friends look at change in the same way as we do? If there is no consensus about the viability of the status quo what are they likely to want to change and when? Can we exert some influence over the status quo? If we can is that influence any more than the influence we can exert over change? (If we have influence, change is more likely to have positive outcomes.) Is it better to change positively and with energy or to sit tight in the equivalent of a brace crash position and hope the moment will pass?
  7. Change is rarely, if ever, done to us to annoy or upset us; there is therefore precious little to be gained by arguing emotionally against change. Even if our concerns are well intentioned, an argument based on emotions will appear Luddite (or worse) and definitely not a good place to begin negotiations. So we should argue facts, argue logic and argue better alternatives. Not all change is good, but bad change occurs because we lose our perspective and create distracting and pointless arguments which are bound to fail.
  8. When change is contemplated, opportunity is created too. It’s like a chemical reaction. If we seek out the opportunity and judge the benefit of the opportunity before you resist the change, many possibilities are revealed.
  9. Life (as the old cliché goes) is a journey, but it should not always be a Sunday afternoon ride down a familiar lane, to the same old places. While some days like this are good, no one should want their whole life to be like it. Let the journey be a mixture of the old and the new, the fast and the slow, the risk free and, occasionally, the risky too.
  10. Never again should we have the automatic response that we will be “out of our depth” with change simply because it is unfamiliar. Most likely you are swimming just fine. The shoreline a little different perhaps, but the swimmer in control, comfortable and maybe even enjoying the new views.

Of course articles like this are bound to simplify things too much and it is always easier to say these things than to actually do them. However while change is not easy and is only ever relished by a very few, it should not be so daunting. What we must always try to do is to reflect on how we will make change work for us.

The in-house lawyer with whom I shared a coffee, like all of us, has the capacity to change and to take advantage of the opportunity that change brings. Enjoy the swim.

Paul Gilbert is chief executive of LBC Wise Counsel, the specialist management and skills training consultancy for lawyers.


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