Labeling Change Is Risky Business
One of the most powerful things you can do to help yourself cope more effectively with change is to take the labels off. Too often, I hear people talk about change as either negative or positive. What they may not realize is that the label they have applied predetermines their reaction to the change.
This is one of the concepts we explore in the Increasing Personal Change Readiness component of our Living and Leading Change program. In it, I encourage participants to move away from looking at change as either “bad” or “good” and to simply see it as different or neutral.
This usually stimulates some lively discussion among the group, with one or two people being adamant that certain changes must be classified. But every change brings loss, uncertainty, and gain:
- Loss – No matter what the change, you must let go of the current state before you can move forward.
- Uncertainty – There will always be periods of uncertainty as you move through the transition from old to new.
- Gain – Even a change you may want to label as “negative” will bring some new opportunity.
Just consider: job loss might be the catalyst that launches someone on a new career, while a longed-for promotion might mean leaving a home you love to move to an unfamiliar city with no friends or family nearby.
My thinking on the concept of change as neutral was further reinforced after I read Managing the Unexpected by Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe. In a section called The Hazards of Labels, the authors talk very articulately about how the labels we place on any activity or situation directly affect our approach.
Try Labeling Change As Neutral
Here’s the risk in labeling change as good or bad: Label it as bad and you close yourself off to the new opportunities it may present; label it as good and you risk feeling unprepared when there is an unexpected consequence or the transition requires more work than you had expected.
Labeling a change as neutral does not mean you do not explore and highlight the benefits. Nor does it mean ignoring the loss or uncertainty that comes with change. In fact, it means just the opposite.
The next time you are confronted with a change event, especially one you did not initiate, try this: instead of labeling it as good or bad, just say “this will be different.”
This simple but powerful phrase can help you:
- Reduce the stress associated with the change event
- Expand your view of the change event and your transition
- Increase your ability to respond to the event
Helping leaders successfully navigate the complexities of organizational change