Updated: Oct 30, 2019
About 20 years ago, as part of a team of business consultants, I was asked to take a day out to go abseiling. Never having done this, I was concerned as to how I would react. We were all colleagues but also competitors, and the business owner was the kind of leader who liked to push out the boundaries to test others. So there was a real concern and an element of fear as to how he would view our reactions.
I have two overriding memories of the event. As I did not particularly like heights, I had a sense of foreboding in the pit of my stomach. Despite lots of reassurance of how safe the harness was and that nobody had ever fallen or being hurt, I just could not let go of the rope to start walking down the cliff face backward. Subsequently, I found out that was also the experience of most of my teammates.
I found the team leader who was in charge of this exercise, very reassuring and helpful and eventually I started taking baby steps. By the time I got halfway down I was motoring and at the bottom, the second emotion clicked in. As well as relief, it was sheer exhilaration at having conquered my small but at the time a very significant ‘Everest’.
Letting go to let come
The memory of this experience came back at a recent Peer to Peer Leadership coaching forum I was facilitating. A business leader at this session brought up a case study around his challenge of letting go of parts of his own role. And how he was getting sucked back into doing things he was trying to leave to others. He described the frustrations he experienced with himself and others because he knew there was so much more potential for business growth if he focused on what would yield much bigger returns.
As often happens in our forums, he did not think this case study warranted much time or input. However, the other participants were very interested in diving in deeper, to get a better understanding of the process individuals and groups to go through in dealing with change. It was subsequently highlighted as the most important case study they have dealt with over the past year.
The following is a summary of the key aspects, learning, and insights that emerged from other members' life experiences about having to change or trying to implement change.
‘A man becomes a man when the fight begins within him’ Robert Browning
As we unfolded the case study, one participant made the comment that we can unconsciously be grieving for an aspect of ourselves that we are now trying to leave behind. We have developed a high level of competency in our current role, as a result of years of practice. This to an extent defines who we are as a leader, as it gives us an anchor which leads to lots of confidence in our ability to do our jobs. It was remarked that this may be the reason people often refer to the past as the ‘good old days’ when life was simpler and easier. Or looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses. So we came to the conclusion that there is always a fight or dynamic tension between who we were and who we are aspiring to be, or what life and the business demand off us.
Walk a Mile in his Moccasins.
This is taken from a poem by Mary T Lathrop and often attributed to various Indian tribes. It challenges us to first walk a mile in the other person's shoes before we judge them. The poem was originally entitled ‘Judge Softly’.
The challenge is to be aware of this and not get stuck with being critical of our and others' inability to accept or more quickly adapt to change. To understand that fear of failure and loss – even if that is only just time - is a natural part of the change process and part of our humanity.
Without this empathy, we are likely to get frustrated with ourselves and others.
Often our default approach is to push and cajole or criticize others because we do it to ourselves. When we push we create an equal and opposite resistance and then we wonder why the change is not happening. Or we get very logical and factual to try to convince others of the benefits of the change without trying to understand why their hesitancy makes a lot of sense to them.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
This quotation was taken from the Tao Te Ching written by Laozi over six thousand years ago. This brings me back to my abseiling experience, once I took the first few tentative steps I now had a template to negotiate my fear. So as leaders at the forum we all agreed that focusing on the next step takes much of the pressure off everybody. Once we continuously focus on small incremental improvements then change becomes embedded in the culture
Another memory I have of the abseiling experience is that before I volunteered to be the next one to try, one of my colleagues took one look at the cliff face and said he was not going down there. He was reassured by the instructor that it was ok not to try something that he felt was not right for him. This gave me great encouragement that I was not going to be judged if I could not do it. Ironically, this individual changed his mind at the end.
Whether that was from peer pressure or because he believed if everybody else could do it so could he. This illustrates another key learning from our case study. Not to negatively judge people’s resistance, which usually comes from some fear or other emotion that makes logical sense to them, but to understand their reasoning while not being deflected from the overall vision for the business.
Some final insights from the group were to focus on building a culture where people are valued and involved and then change is rarely an issue. Plus to support empathy with also knowing that we all grow when we stretch ourselves to achieve something we did not think was possible. And equally, many people do relish a challenge or gentle push. It is always down to how you engage.