Leading Anxious People through Change

When my daughter was getting ready to enter second grade, she was really anxious. Every time we asked her how she felt about it, she said she was scared and nervous and she didn’t want to go to second grade—ever.

We talked about her feelings and tried to figure out why she felt so anxious. She couldn’t really explain it. Then one day, after I asked her to tell me what she thought would be the worst thing about second grade, I realized that she had no idea what second grade would be like. Between kindergarten and first grade, we had moved across the country and settled in a whole new community and (obviously) a whole new school. Everything had started over for her. She didn’t realize that going to second grade wouldn’t involve so much transition. In fact, it would look a whole lot like first grade.

So we helped her understand what second grade would be like. And we helped her develop a mental picture of herself as a perfectly capable second grader. By the time the school bus showed up on the first day of school, she was ready to hop on and stride with confidence into second grade.

Now that I think about it, my daughter’s reaction to the prospect of second grade was a lot like the way many of us respond to change. The people we lead are no exception. When faced with a transition or a new situation, they feel anxious, partly because they simply can’t picture themselves living successfully in a new situation.

I’m reading a book about leadership—another one of those books that tells you how to lead people to and through change. This book provides a step-by-step process for leading people through change. But like many such books, it ignores the important
step of helping people envision their own ability to succeed in a new reality. Leading through change is about more than helping people see a new vision. It goes beyond showing people the importance of change. It requires us to also show them how they can thrive after change.

In Leading Strategic Change, J. Stewart Black and Hal B. Gregersen put it this way: “No one expects to be instantly great at something they have not done before. This is part of the reason that we don’t take up new languages, sports, musical instruments, and so on with greater frequency. Most of us do not like to be bad at something, especially if we are already good at something else. That is why, for most people, going from being competent to incompetent is a very unappealing proposition. Ironically, this is also why the clearer the vision of the new right thing, the more immobilized people often become. The clearer the new vision, the easier it is for people to see all the specific ways in which they will be incompetent and look stupid—ways that they will do the right thing and do it horribly.”

People have learned how to succeed in one environment. When facing a transition, they need to know and believe that they can succeed in the new one. This may be the most difficult step in the process of leading people to and through change. It takes work—often one on one—to help people embrace a new plan for effectiveness. But without this step, they won’t be ready to do what you need them to do. They won’t be ready for second grade.

So how do you do this? When have you experienced or seen the need for this kind of vision? How have you helped others envision their own ability to function well in a new environment? How does our faith in Christ help us encourage others with the confidence that they can fulfill their calling in a new situation?

This blog post first appeared here on Christianity Today’s GiftedforLeadership.com.

 

© 2012 Amy Simpson.