What is  your response style to change? I assumed people’s response to the significant change we’re all facing now would be pretty uniform, but I have been wrong. My friends and colleagues in New York City are feeling a little claustrophobic, but my coaching client in the Midwest is happily productive while hanging out at her boyfriend’s house (they do not have kids). At work, change is guaranteed in most industries given the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) operating environment most teams and leaders face, now amplified by a global pandemic.

While there are entire theories, practices, bodies of science and courses devoted to change management, I recently discovered a simple framework to help you assess your response style to change. This framework classifies response styles in three different categories as follows:

Leapers: These are the innovators who jump right in and embrace change. They get on board easily when change happens and are the early adopters to new ways of thinking and doing.

Bridge Builders: This group is willing to change, but they need some time to understand it first. They want information and time to think about the implications of the change. Over time, they will sort through concerns and jump on board, but they usually won’t be among the first wave of adopters.

Tradition Holders: Their going in position is, “No – not until you give me a really good reason to change.” They appreciate the way things are and don’t want to lose what’s working or what’s good about the way things are. This group will make sure that if change happens, it’s well handled.

What response style do you most closely match? In my business I am very much a leaper. I love thinking and talking about new intersections for my work, meeting potential collaborators and generally thinking about the future evolution of what I do. People who are slower to change can frustrate my love of innovation, but I know I would have benefited more than once from a bridge builder or tradition holder to slow me down on projects that I rolled out too quickly or people I was too quick to trust. I’m more of a bridge-builder or even a tradition holder in other areas of my life.

When I work with individuals and teams, there is almost always one thing I discover that impedes their ability to make meaningful change – icebergs. I first learned about the concept of icebergs at the University of Pennsylvania during my training to teach resilience strategies to soldiers in the US Army. Icebergs are your core values and beliefs about the way the world should operate.

Take a moment to visualize an iceberg – there is a small piece that is visible above the waterline, but the biggest part remains hidden under the water. Your core values and beliefs often operate outside of your conscious awareness (“hidden under the water”) as you go about your day, but they can be triggered in certain circumstances. I call icebergs your rules for living. Think back to a time when you overreacted (or underreacted) to something, noticed a pet peeve was triggered (for me, it’s slow drivers in the left lane) or kept stewing about something days after the event happened. These are all indicators that an iceberg is present.

Here are some examples of iceberg beliefs or rules:

“I need to always be in charge or things will go wrong”
“I must have all the answers”
“If I can’t do something perfectly, then I shouldn’t do it at all”
“If you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself”
“Failure is a sign of weakness”
“Clients come first in all circumstances”
“Family comes first in all circumstances”
“Strong people don’t ask for help”

People in each of the change response categories above carry with them core values and beliefs, but not all of them are limiting. If you are frustrated by a person’s perceived inability to get behind change, ask them to tell you their story – and listen. Once you give people a chance to talk, you will hear their core values and deeply held beliefs surface. That will give you key insight into the deeper reasons behind their intentions. The goal is not to agree with everything you hear – it’s to get to a deeper understanding so you can have the right conversation instead of the wrong disagreement.

It’s also important for you to surface your rules so you can evaluate them. Once you surface the belief, you can evaluate it by asking these questions:

  • Is this rule helping or harming? Is it getting me closer to, or further away from the goals I want to achieve? Is it too strict or rigid?
  • How did the rule develop? Is it something you heard your parents say or was it a core family value? Did you develop it as a result of the organization or industry to went into?
  • What is the payoff for following this rule?
  • What alternative rule might be more helpful?

One soldier’s spouse who I worked with talked about the deeply powerful reaction she had to the news that her husband was being deployed and would miss their daughter’s first birthday. This would be tough to take for anyone, but it just sank her. As we talked through the exercise, her iceberg belief, or rule was, “Families should always be there for big events.” Her father missed her birthdays when she was younger, and so she formed this rule and clung to it throughout her life. That rule worked until she was confronted with her spouse’s deployment and the exercise helped her understand the intensity of her reaction and why she needed to soften the rule a little.

Change isn’t always easy, but it’s wrong to assume everyone will have a hard time. A varied change response can be a good thing and each change response style has strengths you can leverage. When you feel stuck or frustrated or others on your team are slow to come around, make sure to look for the icebergs to get a better understanding.

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