Changing Isn’t Always Easy

CHANGE MATTERSTHIS IS A VERY DIFFERENT blog posting for me. Usually I take a concept from Business Change and Transformation and write about it. I usually include work I’ve done with clients to illustrate my points. I impart my wisdom – you learn from it and many of you share your own wisdom in return. Today I want to deviate from that format a little and talk about something that is happening to me right now and let you in my own personal learning. It is still about change, but in a different and more personal way.

The Situation:

I’m currently serving on an association board that that has turned out to be less professional than I would have expected, considering the caliber of this organization. I’m not the leader of this board, but am, of course, in a leadership position – as are my fellow board members. The lack of professionalism of a few individuals has caused us to not function very well as a team. We all need to change our behavior, but it hasn’t happened yet and we are more than halfway through our term. We are all in businesses; some in our own like me, some in major corporations.

You might be wondering why I’m writing about this and ‘outing’ myself in that I’m part of something that is so far, less than wonderful.   After all, I’m a change expert. I can come into any situation and tell you how to fix it or avoid it next time. Through my work as an executive coach I help others step into leadership and avoid unproductive behaviors. Although I’m a member of this group and in the thick of it, I’ve tried to take a step back this week and use my expertise to help us see a path forward. Here’s what I’ve learned. I hope you can learn along with me.behaviorchangeLearning Number 1: You can change how you act, but don’t go it alone

I can’t tell you how many times I tell my clients this – you can’t change how others act, you can only change how you act. That is a universal truth. But when you need others to change their behaviors too it isn’t very comforting. In the short term you can only change how you act. You can go to others and ask them to change how they are acting, but you can’t make them do it. Those actions may or may not affect change. In culture change theory all actions have an affect because every action affects other actions. But the ‘affect’ isn’t always what is needed. We also need to remember that change theory also tells us, and shows us, that individuals only change their behavior when it no longer serves them. So sometimes the action you take is to ask for help.

In my case, that is what happened today. Today another board member’s actions caused me to realize I couldn’t fix the issue just by changing my actions. So I called the Chair and asked for help for myself. I also asked her to join with me to affect change in the way the group was acting. The Chair of the Board decided to call in someone from outside the group to work with us. She had been reluctant to do this before, but when I asked her for help she realized she also couldn’t solve this issue alone. This person will work with the entire Board to help us resolve something we haven’t been able to resolve ourselves.

Sometimes you might be very focused on ‘handling’ everything yourself. That doesn’t always work in your favor. Sometimes you need to ask for help. It isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength.

Sometimes a situation needs more than one person to change it. Being a ‘change agent’ isn’t a lone individual’s job, even though it is often characterized as such. When someone says to me ‘I’m a change agent.’ It is often in the context of a lone individual who is charged with changing an organization himself or herself. I always want to tell them that although change happens one person at a time, the implementation of change is a team sport. I forgot that for a few minutes and am glad I remembered to ask for help.

But here’s the thing. As I was not remembering to ask for help, I was also reacting to the actions of others. Which brings me to my second lesson.

Learning Number 2: Give yourself permission to be human. This is a great concept from leading Positive Psychologists. As a recovering perfectionist I sometimes have an idea of the perfect thing to say or do in a situation, and when I don’t do it I am extremely hard on myself. I spent many a sleepless night this week going over the emails and responses in my head, wishing I could have said the perfect thing to just stop the cascade. But I couldn’t, because the ‘perfect’ thing to say, the ‘perfect’ email, doesn’t exist.

Maybe you have perfectionist tendencies and have found yourself in a similar situation. In my experience, anyone who is achievement oriented, who wants to be a leader and accomplish great things often has perfectionist tendencies. It is natural, and not bad, by the way. But we are human. We make mistakes. We all react ‘in the moment’. We take things personally or interpret things and then act on that interpretation. None of us are immune to that, no matter how hard we try. In the end, we all need to give ourselves permission to be human, and to make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them.

Here’s another universal truth: Hindsight is ALWAYS 20/20. Always. But ‘in the moment’ our view is an imperfect one. Remembering to give yourself permission to be human also allows you to give others the same permission. And that brings me to my last learning for today.

Learning Number 3: Everyone needs to own their part

If I’m totally honest with you, when I first realized something was off, I just put my head down and kept working, instead of approaching the individuals directly.  This is my tendency; my guess is it might be yours as well. But when you do this, you don’t help the situation resolve and actually contribute to it getting worse. Every relationship, every team that isn’t working is the fault of every party in that relationship or on that team.  I own how I contributed to the situation and although it took me awhile, I believe I can be part of the solution.

Early on in my career, before I even knew what ‘change management’ was, I was on a project team that was not working well together. Most of the team got along but there were a few individuals who seemed determined to undermine the project. Instead of bringing the behavior to the forefront, everyone just put their heads down and worked hard to deliver ‘their piece’. So in the end we had many excellent pieces but could not put together a successful project. I had completely forgotten about this experience until this week, when I realized I had done the same thing again. Permission to be human. This time I did things differently. I look forward to a different result.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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  1. I remember someone telling me, “if you can’t change the people, change the people”. I never had challenges with doing change. Then again I focus at the different levels and include psychological rest stops so people can recover after changing. Change can be tiresome and be both mentally and physically exhausting. What I find the biggest impediment is that people just want to do what they feel comfortable doing. They want to keep doing what they feel that works, even though every shred of evidence shows it doesn’t. Some believe you need to create pain, a fire or a situation to get these people to change.

    I think it’s just that they don’t directly face the consequences of their actions. I found just tweaking the bonuses around and tactically getting a few people taken down a peg can develop such a strong environment where everyone is willing to change.

    • Thanks Chris for sharing your thoughts. There are so many different ways that people resist change and each has a specific remedy. For example, if someone digs in their heels in the face of evidence to the contrary, there is often a real or perceived loss involved. Finding out the loss and working with them to move through it is often helpful. And, as you say, at the end of the day there is a job to do. If you don’t do it, then you take the consequences. The important thing is to realize that there is no ‘one size fits all’ remedy for resistance to change.

  2. Thank you Linda! You are so right about what is the “issue” and what actually is at the root. And I completely agree that beliefs drive the behavior. So many people these days are out of touch with that, but it is so true.

  3. Beth, you are admired for your transparency.
    As I was reading your experience, the one thought that came to me continuously was:
    What appears to be the issue-Never is!
    Beliefs drive the behavior…wondering what is going on in this person life.