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‘Turn and Face the Strange’: Overcome your fears and learn to embrace change management

My husband has an old T-shirt that resurfaces once a month or so. The neck is stretched out and I’m pretty sure there’s a taco stain down the front. While once a fashionable option that I thought looked great on him with a sport coat and jeans, its better days are now behind it. Just don’t try to tell him that.

After all, that shirt has been a witness to a lot of great memories—concerts, events with friends, birthday parties. I’ll admit, it really did look great on him, even if it’s no longer in much shape to make any appearance beyond a Saturday afternoon in the yard. Still, this perennial favorite maintains its coveted spot in the closet because my husband can’t bear the thought of giving it up. Changing his go-to shirt is just not something he can bear.

A lot of business leaders can identify. After all, we all know companies hit hard by the 2008 recession that, when faced with the tough decisions, decided to double down and wait for everything to go back to the way it was. (We know how that worked out.) Managing large organizational change takes courage, stamina and often a leap of faith – and our human minds are actually wired against it – but the payoff for the brave CEO can be huge.

The pain is all in your head

Why is change so tough? Turns out a lot of it has to do with how we’re wired, literally.

Three brain areas are involved with this natural resistance: the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala and the basal ganglia, according to scientists. If the basal ganglia is like our computer’s hard drive that runs all of our day-to-day, repeatable functions, think of the prefrontal cortex as your computer’s RAM capacity, says consultant Ethan Chazin, MBA, in a recent article:

“Like RAM, our prefrontal cortex’s capacity is limited. It can deal comfortably with only a handful of concepts, before we max out our capacity. When we reach our PC limit, that bumping up against a ceiling generates a physiological sense of discomfort. That discomfort produces fatigue in us, and can even lead us to feel anger towards the change.”

Basically, excessive change can often be like opening the entire Adobe Creative Suite on your old laptop: It might work for a few minutes but it won’t be long before the whole thing freezes up.

3 tips for better change management

So how do CEOs get past our basic brain anatomy? After all, we recognize that our businesses need massive shifts and changes occasionally to keep us agile and on the path to greater success, but change management can be challenging. Here are a few ideas I’ve found to be helpful:

  • Get out of your silo – Forget about only looking at best practices among your peers. Look to other businesses and industries – even those completely different than yours – and see what inspires you. You might find that the process a restaurant chain used to recruit high-performing bar managers, for example, might be applicable to improving employee engagement at your Web development shop.
  • Talk to your clients – I know, I know, you’re always talking to your clients, right? No, you’re not—at least about the right topics. Some of the most powerful and informative comments I’ve ever received about ECCO have come from current and past clients who felt free to speak candidly. It may require a third-party to get them to open up, but an in-depth interview about what your company stands for, what you’re doing well, what you can do better, etc., is worth the time.
  • Create a “change-safe” company – Leadership has immense power to grow the company’s capacity for change. When employees feel “safe” to explore innovative new ideas and contribute to the organizational pivot, the negative effect of a big change is dramatically dampened.

Change is never easy; I can surely attest to that. But organizational growth only happens when CEOs and business leaders make the commitment to embrace a little discomfort to see where the change will lead.

We all love those old shirts we’ve worn for years. But eventually, you may find your wife snuck it out of the closet and added it to the Goodwill box when you weren’t looking. And then what?

Jeanette Hernandez Prenger is president and CEO of ECCO Select, a talent acquisition + advisory consulting company, specializing in people, process and technology solutions for our clients. ECCO knows some business challenges are too large to tackle alone. Our experienced consultants can help you assess organizational maturity, identify and implement business process improvements, and assist in organizational change management. Learn more at www.eccoselect.com, or let us know your thoughts on Facebook or on Twitter @ECCOSelectCORP.