Adapting to Unexpected Changes
Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
And you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'
Times change. Circumstances change. People change.
When things just change, we need to adapt to the world. Otherwise, the world has a habit of just… moving on. As Bob Dylan reminds us, when change comes about, we better start swimming or we’ll sink.
There’s a powerful concept I came across years ago inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic book “Through the Looking Glass” that emphasizes how we need to adapt to the environment. In one of Alice’s adventures, she meets the Red Queen and they have a race. Oddly enough, both Alice and the Red Queen run very fast, but they remain in the same spot. It’s almost like they are on an invisible treadmill because the scenery isn’t changing and they aren’t going anywhere. When Alice points this out, the Red Queen states that “if we run as fast as we can we’ll stay in the same place, and if we want to get anywhere we need to run twice as fast!”
Sometime in the 1970s evolutionary biologists looked at this silly episode and applied that observation to evolution, calling it the Red Queen Hypothesis; which is that if a species is to survive, it must constantly adapt in relation to the environment. In other words - the wisdom of Bob Dylan. Times they are a-changin.’ Sink or swim. Run. Twice as fast, just to keep up with change. The Red Queen Hypothesis applies just as much to us and our relationship to change – we need to adapt, and fast, if we are to thrive.
When change happens, how do you typically react to it? Think of a new job or supervisor, new teammates, different expectations, new metrics, a different way of doing a job, etc. Are you quick to adapt, or is change more of a challenge for you?
When we struggle with change, it is because the expectations, the rules of the game as I sometimes call them, no longer apply. Behaviors, approaches, actions, etc. that had worked previously do not necessarily work now. Change truly is disruptive.
The COVID pandemic is a great example for how we deal with change because we were all impacted to one degree or another by that event. Remember the wide array of emotions people felt initially? Anger. Disappointment. Fear. Frustration. Sadness. Loneliness. Confusion. All perfectly normal.
These feelings were all a reaction to what this massive event meant. In the workplace, most of us had to pivot and modify how we did our work. Masks. Travel restrictions. No in-person interactions. Vaccines. Testing. Distancing. Video-meetings. Hybrid-work. Telecommuting. We all had to adapt, to one extent or another, to new behaviors, guidelines, and expectations at work. To adapt to the change we had to, just like Alice, run twice as fast.
If we are to avoid staying in that initial fight/flight reactionary state of emotion, we must respond, instead of react, to change. Responding to change is ultimately about finding a way to thrive in a new environment.
Responding to change involves adopting two core beliefs:
- Change will happen no matter what. There are events at a global or systemic level (think the economy, pandemics, the weather, unexpected tragedies, new leadership, work reorganizations, etc.) that we, individually, cannot control or prevent. We need to admit and accept that some things are just out of our individual control. An effective mindset towards change involves asking ourselves:
- Is this change within my control of influence?
- Is there anything I can possibly do to completely eliminate the event causing the change?
- What specifically is different now?
- What will I need to do to accept the reality of the situation?
- When change happens, we need to take action. When change occurs, we do have control over how we respond to those events. Any change initially makes us react emotionally. Instead of reacting, we must first feel, and listen to, our emotions and decipher why we feel the way that we do. There is always a basic human need threatened by change (loss of autonomy, loss of connection, loss of certainty, etc.) and so the key is to identify the need being threatened and find a way to get that need met despite the change that is occurring. How to do this? Ask yourself:
- What about these changes impact me the most?
- What are the new beliefs, expectations and/or behaviors that I am going to have to adopt to succeed in this new reality?
- What previous beliefs, expectations and/or behaviors that worked in the past do I need to release?
- How can I adapt as soon as possible to the changes necessary?
- What will it potentially cost me if I don’t adapt?
Change is not easy, but adapting is necessary. Otherwise, we’ll be in for a life of struggle. These questions are just a starting point in learning to accept and adapt to change. Hopefully, they can begin to point you in the right direction so that when the next event comes along that requires you to adapt, you’ll be ready.