We live in a world that is constantly changing and adapting at an ever-increasing pace. New technologies, globalization, company mergers, economic downturns, job changes, health problems, births, marriages, and family strife can cause our lives to feel like they are spinning out of control. No one is exempt from change—it affects every individual, every organization, and every culture. But why is change so difficult? If we know things are bound to change, why do we hang on to the shreds of “the way things are”? How can we learn to respond well to change?
Daryl Conner attempts to answer these questions in his book, Managing at the Speed of Change. Conner has spent two decades studying the effects of change on individuals and groups of people. He has found that major change is difficult because it “minimizes our ability to dominate events” (Conner, 27). Every human likes predictability because it allows us to feel in control—to anticipate and understand our world and circumstances. Unforeseen change disrupts our expectations and causes us to feel a loss of control, while expected changes invariably have ramifications that cause this same ambiguity. We start wishing to return to life before the change, but often our only choice is to adapt to this change.
Submerged in Change
So what happens when we experience multiple changes all at the same time?
Most change we experience is not isolated. Usually we are experiencing many changes all at once. In fact, it is likely that each of us will experience overlapping changes that continue steadily throughout our lives. Conner classifies changes into three types to help us understand where change is occurring in our lives and the degree to which it affects us.
Micro changes are the changes that hit close to home. They affect us as individuals, our families, or close friends.
Organizational changes affect the institutions in our lives: workplaces, churches, volunteer organizations, unions, etc.
Macro changes are social changes. These changes impact societies, countries, or the entire globe.
As change occurs in our lives, we can look at it through the scope of these three categories. Micro changes will usually affect us the most, while macro changes generally affect us the least. When we add all the changes experienced in each of these categories together, we understand that assimilating all of these at once may be difficult. Together, they drain our capacity to absorb more change, even if the change itself is positive for us!
Sometimes we will be pushed past our capacity to absorb change, and this is what Conner calls “future shock.” Future shock is when we experience “too much change that is too complex to deal with and occurs at too rapid a pace” (Conner, 51). Think of the co-worker who could never seem to make it to work on time or meet their deadlines after their divorce and a company restructuring. Remember a time when you fought with a close family member or spouse, not because of anything they did, but because you were stressed by everything else going on in your life. These are examples of the results of future shock. Future shock causes high stress and often a perceived paralysis, causing an inability to adapt to change or even continue on with regular activities.
Future shock affects organizations and societies as well. For example, an organization experiencing rapid sales growth may feel unable to cope with this growth in terms of back-end support or processes and staff needed to facilitate such growth. Our ever-growing national debt is evidence of macro future shock.
Managing Change is Possible
Preventing future shock and managing change may seem like an impossible task. Many people believe we are born with or without this capability, or that those who succeed are just lucky. However, as we will explore in the next post in this series, resilient individuals usually don’t rely purely on luck or raw talent.
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