This past Mother’s Day weekend offered a new understanding of what it means to navigate the unknown of change and see beyond the cliff’s edge. It came, not unsurprisingly, from my mother. Our conversation, which anyone who has an aging parent may experience, centered on the next steps involved with transitioning from independent to assisted living. For our particular situation, it becomes further complicated because it will entail a move for my mom from a community where she is known and lived most of her adult life to one where, while she will live closer to me and my husband, she will be unknown. As with any significant decision, there are both pros and cons to be considered. These types of family decisions are challenging at best, and heart wrenching in the extreme. And regardless of how handled, will entail significant changes on the part of everyone involved.
The crux of our conversation centered on determining the criteria that would be used to make the decision for her to move. In the middle of the conversation my mother asked, “How can I make this decision with the future so uncertain? I have no idea what the new facility will look like. Yes, it will be closer to you. But even for you I am not ready to step off the cliff edge into the unknown abyss. I need to have some idea of what the other side looks like.”
And then it came to me, isn’t that what companies, using the mouthpiece of managers and supervisors, ask their employees to do as part of significant change efforts? Step off the cliff edge, representing the known way of doing things, into an unknown and untried abyss. However improved the end results will be, for most employees it feels and looks like taking a giant step into an endless chasm. For those of you who saw the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it is akin to taking the “leap of faith” and stepping off the cliff into nothingness. Our hero survives because of a concealed walkway that spans the gorge between the two cliffs. The walkway does not become transparent until he takes the step forward. (Clip from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
As change leaders and managers, refrain from expecting your employees to step off the cliff edge and into the abyss. Create transparent walkways that span the known and the unknown. A few ideas to consider:
• Early on, when the change is more ephemeral – ask lots of questions. Listen to what people identify as the challenges, barriers and scarey parts of the change. Know that these represent the abyss for them. You can later use this information, once you have answers, to help construct the walkway.
• When asked questions you know the answer to, readily share the information in a way that makes sense to people. As humans we take in information and re-order our thinking based on new information.
• Refrain from guessing or hypothesizing answers to questions you don’t know the answers to. Rather be transparent and say, “That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer, but let’s find out who does. I’ll follow up and get back with you.” Each time you guess and are proven wrong, it actually erodes away the walkway.
• Share with people what will stay the same and not change. Think of this unchanging aspect as the foundation for the concealed walkway. Once you share what stays the same, the walkway becomes visible.
• Invite people who have already completed the changeor realize its benefits to share what the other side looks like. Their stories of how they navigated the path to change will give inspiration and hope to others. It’s as if someone turns the switch on and illuminates the pathway for others to see.
In honor of mothers around the world — Happy Mother’s Day. And for all those who recognize that shepherding people through signficant change requires care and patience — make transparent the path beyond the cliff’s edge.