From avoidance to anticipation: coping with Change in our work and lives

Most people think change is a great idea until the change affects them.

Change, viewed from a distance, is mostly seen as a positive thing. Any progress is the result of change. Any development involves changing what already exists. In nature, any growth follows change. Not even mighty mountains remain unchanged eternally. So, if change is progress and is generally seen as good, why are we so afraid of change? Why do our hearts race, and why does our anxiety soar when we are faced with unexpected change? If we know that remaining stuck in a rut is usually a bad idea, why are we afraid of movement?

The answer, according to Prof Jens Mueller, lies in what we have been conditioned to think. “It is not the change we fear but the consequences.” Assuming we are all competent, high-performing people who regularly produce outstanding work and achieve our targets, we naturally want to maintain the environment and the circumstances which have led us to excel and which highlight our outstanding performance. When things change the chances of our maintaining perfect performance are threatened, and we start dreading what we believe to be one of life’s greatest risks: failure. We are forced to contemplate a speculative, uncertain vision of the future in which the chances of failure are higher than the present.

“We are conditioned by our cultures to dread failure, to see it as an embarrassing shortcoming, something which will threaten our careers and possibly our well-being,” says Mueller. But no great innovation has come without change, and many corporate failures have stemmed from avoidance of change. The example of Kodak is often mentioned in this regard: the company that invented the first digital camera did not anticipate the popularity of the medium nor the speed at which traditional film processes would be abandoned.

Similarly, for people who are afraid of change and try to avoid it, there is usually not a pleasant outcome because the world is defined by change. Corporate survival depends on change (called innovation); individual survival depends on growth; social progress follows upheavals; learning is itself a changing of existing knowledge. To avoid change is not only futile; it is dangerous.

“The companies that thrive are those that create the environment and culture in which change is embraced and encouraged,” adds Mueller. “When failure is seen as a learning opportunity innovation blossoms.” And where a culture of change dominates the corporate psyche, the company becomes the innovator, the entity that creates and dictates the change rather than the rest of the industry which follows and reacts to the change. Because progress usually follows experimentation, which inevitably includes several failed attempts, the most innovative companies are the least risk-averse. At very worst, a failed experiment is a learning experience; at best, it creates a revolution.

Change in a corporate environment could be echoed in our personal lives. If we avoid the change we will be its victims, if we anticipate the change and gear ourselves to meet the change (through up-skilling, appropriate thoughts and actions), we become the beneficiaries of change and have an opportunity to determine the outcome. We also need to permit ourselves to fail if that is a possibility. “We can move from a mind-set of believing that ‘change happens to me’ to one where ‘change happens through me,’” concludes Mueller.

Listen to Prof Jens Mueller discussing “Change is great as long as I do not need to change.”

Jens blends his teaching of MBA students and corporate leaders as Professor at Massey University and at universities in the USA and China, with a 30+ year career as founder/leader/director of global firms, often in the technology/health sectors. He is the longest-serving director of the $1 Billion PHARMAC medicine buying agency in New Zealand and has advised Crown Ministers and Ministries in health, business and global positioning of New Zealand. Jens’ work focuses on turnaround strategies to assure the long-term growth of organisations in competitive markets. Jens holds two Doctorates and three Master’s degrees, is a Member of the NZ Order of Merit and has authored/edited seven business text books. He lives in Tauranga – and in airplanes…


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