Every year I get misty eyed when I see the latest production of Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol. I follow Ebenezer Scrooge through the evening of ghosts in and out of his bedroom showing him his terrible future.
I’m inspired that the very next morning Scrooge is a changed man. He buys a Christmas turkey and ends up at the home of his poor, long-exploited employee, Bob Cratchit, loving Bob’s family and the suffering Tiny Tim.
I have to tell you, however, that the cynic in me wonders if after Christmas at the end of January old Scrooge gets his Master Card bill, gasps, and marvels at the bad soup he had before bedtime that gave him such an awful nightmare, and goes back to the loathsome miser he was before. It happens in lots of organizations. It happens to us when we decide we need to change.
Maintaining change can seem improbable. We have a natural “reverter” in ourselves, and it tells us that change is destabilizing and dangerous–it is the voice inside us that calls us to stay changeless with the tried and true.
Dr. Maxwell Maltz used the term “stasis,” the system inside us that tells us the parameters of our lives–how smart we are, how much money we have, and how successful we are in relationships. The theory is that if we suddenly get richer, we tend to blow it, and if we get poorer, we find a way to get back to the economic level where we were. If we find a great relationship, we blow it up. Our minds are natural stabilizing systems. All our lives we don’t go too far up or down.
Nonetheless, I do believe that documented change can happen if circumstances are right.
My ideas about change are deeply rooted in my experience as a young manager. My boss called me into his office and stated in his clear, West Texas way, “Jack, your public relations in this organization are not worth [expletive definitely deleted].”
I wasn’t shocked that my public relations weren’t good. How could my public relations with the other employees if you knew those people? They were a bunch of yahoos from cowboy land and I was a high stepper going some place in life. I had been carrying the load for all those people, and they should be grateful to me. So I naively asked my boss why public relations mattered as long as I was knocking the ball out of the park in my job?
To which he replied, “Because, Jack, I have so many complaints on you that I’m going to fire you if you don’t change.” As the main breadwinner for my family and few job possibilities outside of the one I had, I suddenly knew that I could and would change. That experience set me on a lifelong journey to understand how people can change.
How do we know that we’ve changed and we won’t revert to what we did before?
1. We have to be backed up against “right wall.” I don’t mean just any old wall, it has to “the right wall.” Many people go through their entire life on the edge and it seems normal to them. Things are never good, but to them not disastrous and they muddle through, insisting that they are fine–it’s others that should change.
You have to feel within yourself you’ve reached the point of “game over,” that Life has called the game. Your are backed up to your own goal line on the two inch mark, with a line of 300 lb players in front of you ready to crush you in the last play in the last 10 seconds. If you feel like your very personal survival is at stake, that there are no more options, then you may be able to change.
2. You have to be ready to sit down, shut up, listen, and learn. This is a humiliating place for a highly educated, incredibly intelligent person to be. You have earned degrees and achieved a great deal of recognition, but your best thinking can’t think you past the rolling disasters and lost opportunities that serially happen to you no matter the place or the people around you.
It won’t help for you to start blaming and demeaning yourself, or even taking responsibility. You must give up pride, control, and the clever way you explain away the last thing that happened to you. You must now be teachable, and find the person who can teach you.
4. Objectify Change Instead of Emotionalizing it. You are in no way defective or ignorant because you don’t know how to make the changes you must make in your life and career. You haven’t had the opportunity to learn, and now life has given you that opportunity. Look at change the way you would if you were learning to play first base. You wouldn’t feel like you were being personally attacked because the coach was trying to teach you how to pick off a player trying to steal a base. What you are learning are techniques, and you’re not receiving moral judgments–don’t emotionalize the process. You’re learning skills that you never learned, not having a moral crisis.
5. Don’t change an individual behavior, change your mind. Don’t think of change as changing a single behavior–you have to change your mind. Otherwise, it’s like going to the hair stylist and getting my hair parted on the other side or wearing a different shade of lipstick. It’s not one detail that gives you a head turning look, it’s the clothes, the walk, fitness, and many other things that will make someone say, “You really look great.” It’s not one behavior, it’s everything working together.
6. Develop an Effective Feedback Loop. We are notoriously unable to see our own behaviors and will never achieve ongoing change without effective feedback loop. The feedback loop includes psychometric assessments such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (RT), FIRO-B, 360-degree feedback assessment, a circle of trusted friends and colleagues, a good executive coach. Continual feedback for the rest of our lives is the key to permanent change.
7. Never Declare Victory. Physics tell us that systems stop when they run out of energy and so will you–stars grow cold, cars run out of gas, love dies, raging rivers become placid pools. It’s all a part of the running down nature of reality. If at some point you quit putting in new energy into yourself to change and grow, you’ll become flat and predictable. Never quit changing–make that who you are.
How will I know that I have permanently changed? There is no such thing. I will get better or worse, and these fluctuations are part of my daily personal management job. My experience is in life that the number of people who educate themselves, manage their careers, lose weight, get out of debt, beat alcohol, drug, or food addictions are probably less than 5% of the human race. Some people will find those odds frightening. I find them exciting. I know I can be part of the 5% and I will be. Let’s all be Five-percenters! We’ll form a band together!