Changing when change is hard

Susan Letterman White
BridgeTower Media Newswires

Many people set  myriad noble goals at New Year and completely forget them by Feb. 1.

Do you want this year to be different? Here’s a suggestion: Learn about the common challenges  that people face when attempting to change ingrained habits and then go ahead and apply those lessons.

The change equation

The change equation is a formula to explain the difficulties faced by people who attempt to make intentional change happen. It was developed in Boston by Richard Beckhard, a pioneer in organization development. Beckhard, an adjunct professor at MIT, and a colleague, R. Harris, explained why it’s so easy to make resolutions and why resistance makes it so difficult to keep them. The formula is: Dissatisfaction x Vision x First Steps > Resistance.
We don’t like the way change feels, so we Resist it. The familiarity of the status quo feels more comfortable and safe. We don’t move out of our zone of safety without enough force to overcome the inertia.

Significant force to change an ingrained habit comes from an extremely high level of Dissatisfaction with one’s present situation, a clear and detailed Vision of a future that is different and better, and clear understanding and ability to take the First steps to begin changing the way the person thinks, what the person does, and ultimately how the person feels emotionally and physically.

The pernicious features of resistance include an absence of time or energy, fear of failure, denial, confusion, and even physically not feeling well enough to do what is necessary.

This formula forces us to think about our motivation to overcome resistance when change is difficult, contrary to what we are comfortable doing, and often requires a new way of thinking and a new set of skills.

If the discomfort with your present situation isn’t significantly greater than your discomfort with change, it is not likely you will envision a different and better future or create a strategic action to plan to reach that goal, let alone select a first step to take.

Lesson No. 1: Make the discomfort real

Asking yourself the right questions may be enough to increase your discomfort. As you add more detail to the picture of your current problematic reality, your discomfort will rise. Questions to consider are:

• What will happen if you continue on this same course without making any changes?

• Why does that matter to you?

• How do you feel about your current situation?

• What opportunities are you missing as a result of your current situation?

Create a written record about your uncomfortable reality. It doesn’t need to be perfect. A written record allows you to add more detail tomorrow without forgetting what you wrote down today. The more detail you add, the more insight you will gain into possible approaches to change it and the more motivation you will feel to act.

Lesson No. 2: Create a detailed vision of a better future

You need a clear description of what you want. That description is your vision statement: the expression of your desire, goal and solution to problems. Your description will influence what you will do. You’ll use it to successfully navigate your path forward.

It’s not uncommon to struggle to identify or explain what you want in any detail. Give yourself permission and time to think, dream and imagine a different and better future.

If you are still stuck, wander to new places, expose yourself to new ideas, and go out and meet new people. Shake up your routines — where you go, how you get there, and what you read, watch or listen to.

Write down a clear description of your detailed and specific vision — an idea for a future that is different and better than your present situation. The more detail you add, the more insight you gain into possible avenues to live it.

Lesson No. 3: Create your plan and select first steps

If you have a clear vision and are sufficiently uncomfortable and unhappy with the detail of today’s reality, you still need a plan with prioritized action steps to get from where you are today to where you want to be.

Action plans are created by distilling broad, complex concepts into specific, detailed parts so that meaning is clear, specific, concrete and objectively measurable. They are also created by using insights gained from the way you explain your current dissatisfaction and vision for the future. The details in your descriptions are often insights into ideas to try out.

Many problems do not have obvious solutions because of the uncertainty and ambiguity of today’s world. For example, in business, it’s impossible to enumerate every possible contribution to a problem or risk the business is facing and will face. This makes it impossible to describe a problem or vision with certainty. Our world changes abruptly and significantly with little warning. Under these circumstances, solutions tend to be discovered through insights and experimentation.

Solutions may be temporary, making adaptability an important skill to develop. Good questions to chart a path forward are:

• What has to happen before you reach your vision?

• Are there insights in your descriptions of your present discomfort or vision for the future that suggest options to try?

• What resources (skills, time, money, space and/or technology) do you need to make those things happen and what will you do to acquire them?

The Beckhard formula is a handy tool for providing structure for implementing your resolutions. There is one more piece to this puzzle: the emotional strength of each element in the formula.

Lesson No. 4: Develop a dose of emotional intelligence

Emotions can affect your ability to learn new things, make good decisions, and communicate effectively. Some emotions can help move you forward, while others derail or impede your efforts. Use or adjust your emotions to improve your change efforts by improving your emotional intelligence, or EQ.

EQ is being aware of your emotions when they are happening and being able to manage them to improve your performance and relationships. Ninety percent of high performers, according to leadership researchers John Zenger and Joseph Folkman, are also high in EQ.

Develop an awareness of when you are happy, sad, angry, worried or embarrassed, and what you tend to think and do as a result. Also develop an awareness of situations that trigger strong emotions and how long the feelings persist. When your persistent feelings resulting from certain situations lead to impulsive behaviors, you’re in a “defensive routine.”

Chris Argyris, a professor at Harvard, was a social scientist like Beckhard. He coined the term “defensive routines” and explained that when we feel stress, fear or shame, we often respond without thinking. These emotions are common points of resistance to change.

Expect your triggers and fallback preferences to interfere with your ability to act strategically and advance toward your goals, without a dose of EQ.


Make 2018 the year you keep your resolutions. Make it the year to change when it’s really hard. Make it the year to transform your personal and professional life into the successful and happy one of your dreams.


Susan Letterman White works with lawyers and law firms to improve leadership, organizational and team performance, and marketing and business development. She is a practice advisor at Massachusetts LCL/LOMAP, an adjunct professor at Northeastern University, and the principal consultant at Letterman White Consulting. She practiced employment law for more than 20 years.


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