The Personal Side of Change
Change is hard.
Change is hard, especially in the middle of change, where I’d give anything to jump straight to the end. I far prefer the moment when new treatments are already humming along, staff are already enthusiastic and settled, our records are immaculate, and our finances are flush. Change would be so much easier if I could go from here to there with a mere snap of my fingers.
But that’s not how change works.
These days, the size, pace, and uncertainty of change in behavioral health leaves me breathless and off balance. There’s the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid expansion, primary care integration, trauma-informed care, new clinical innovations, electronic health records, data analytics … the list goes on and on.
They’re all important; they’re all, in fact, exciting. But they all require that I do things very differently. The process is intense, and sometimes the learning curve and the barriers feel overwhelming. However, with the right coping strategies, change can be manageable and even exciting.
It’s important to manage system change AND personal transitions.
Successful change requires that we manage two things simultaneously: the concrete systems change and the more abstract personal transitions. The systems part is easier to see (e.g., the day a new service begins or the go-live date for a new funding strategy or electronic health record).
It’s important to also manage the personal side of change. We’re wise to understand how our brains typically respond to change and how we use that information to help everyone lean into change with greater serenity and confidence.
Our brains are hardwired to resist change.
We are hardwired against change. Our brain stem conspires to fuel our change-anxiety. The same part of our brains that likes steady heartbeats, stable body temperatures, and balanced hormones also insists we distrust others, repeat what historically brought us pleasure, stick only to our tribe, and avoid all threats (e.g., everyone and everything else, especially anyone or anything new).
Our most basic instincts demand absolute stability — certainly handy in the Neanderthal forest, but not very helpful in today’s world of behavioral health. It causes us to be resistant, not resilient, and we end up dreading the word “change” and the process it entails.
But, we also know change is inevitable, important even. Many of the current changes we are spearheading will lead to dramatic improvements in care.
We can improve the important change process by softening our personal resistance to change.
The personal side of the change process is critical. When done well, this process:
- Clarifies our vision
- Builds shared commitment and trust
- Sparks innovation
- Motivates action and engagement
- Strengthens relationships
- Fuels achievement
Fortunately, we are more than our stability-craving brain stem. We have sophisticated emotions and a powerful prefrontal cortex that add nuance and choice to those brain stem impulses and can ease the process of change.
In other words, big change is possible. In fact, when we put our entire brain in the game, we can even learn to embrace and look forward to it. We just need some compassion and some tools.
The following table describes some typical “change overload” symptoms and ways to overcome our hardwiring and create successful change.
We are wise to remember these three points when tackling change:
- Change is a combination of two things: system change and personal transition.
- The process of change — the way we plan, learn, try, and master new things — is critically important if we want to change successfully and build a change-resilient, innovative culture.
- We are wise to understand how our brains either resist or embrace change and then nurture the personal side of change toward enthusiasm and success.
This is the first of two blog posts Jeanne will offer about change. In the next post, Jeanne will talk about effective planning and implementation to achieve successful systems change.
About the Author
Jeanne Supin with Watauga Consulting, Inc., specializes in change management and management and leadership development. She is lead faculty for several National Council for Behavioral Health programs, including the Middle Management Academy.