Big Changes Are Cathartic.


iStock_000002578103Small bw 2Some changes are purely intellectual exercises. They make sense. We know how to achieve them. We get them done.

Big changes have an intellectual component…but they go much deeper.


At one level it is quite simple. They have the ability to (and quite often do) touch us to our very core.

Let’s take a brief look at this phenomenon. While it may not make the experience of catharsis any less difficult, it may be helpful to both know to expect it, and to recognize that this is an unavoidable element of major change.

Change disrupts the status quo; big change disrupts it big time. The path is unclear, the outcomes are uncertain, the journey often uncomfortable. At the very least, it will intrude on our sense of safety and security (the second level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Some changes may hit us at even a more fundamental level, leaving us feeling that our very survival is at stake. Other big changes may undermine our ego or sense of self-worth. Or, they may bring about the creation, re-definition, or termination of relationships. They can leave us questioning our wisdom, our insights, and our dreams.

As if that isn’t enough, very often the big changes in life–whether personal or professional–are about dismantling paradigms that we have invested significantly in creating and sustaining. Most likely, we envisioned them lasting forever (or at least for our lifetimes). It may be that the marriage or similar relationship that you have spent decades nurturing along with the home, the family, and the associated traditions are all about to fundamentally change. Or perhaps it is that the business in which you have invested days, nights, weekends (along with vacations and holidays) bringing to fruition…you have come to realize must dramatically  change if it is to continue to survive.

If all this sounds like catharsis comes with “doom and gloom” (few people would be surprised about that), it is equally true with the positively perceived big changes you will face. While I will go into this in more detail at another time, the reason we so eagerly launch into those changes, whether at work or at home, is that we are naive as to what they will be demanding of us if we are committed to long-term success. (Think “honeymoon” here…) The status quo is being equally disrupted. The old paradigms still need to be dismantled. The journey is no more certain, nor is the outcome.

So, positively perceived change or negative, if the change is big, the journey is going to be more than a “head trip.” It is going to require making significant shifts in ways of thinking, behaving, and perhaps even believing; it is going to require letting go of the old and affirming the new.

What does this mean for you and the others affected by the change?

First, anticipate and plan for catharsis; don’t let it surprise you. It may be possible to create cathartic moments.  One consulting firm that I know facilitates leadership workshops that are designed as catalysts for catharsis. I once worked with a client organization that held a ceremonial funerary event to acknowledge their acquisition, then followed it with a celebration for the new possibilities the acquisition would allow. The bachelor party and wedding reception are examples of parallel rituals at the personal level.

Second, acknowledge to yourself that catharsis is not just for the other people; it is part of your journey as well. Until you are ready to let the tears flow, find an appropriate outlet for the anger, perhaps laugh hysterically, mourn, and/or…, you will be unable to complete the journey.

What is your experience with catharsis and change? Please comment below.


All Change Is Different. All Change Is the Same.


glass-facesChange is an optical illusion. Each of us looks at it and sees it through a different lens. For one person, moving the office coffee pot is a major change; for another it is only a minor disruption, adapted to before the end of the day. For one person, starting a new job is an exciting–perhaps even appealing–challenge. For another, it is life’s worst nightmare.

Why is it that all change is different? And if that is the case, how can it be that all change is the same?

As I wrote in an earlier blog, I use Daryl Conner’s definition of change as “a disruption in expectations.” Let’s apply this to the example of starting a new job. Personally, I have held at least 18 different positions doing at least a dozen different types of work in 8 different industries. Clearly, for me, starting a new job is exciting. It gives me the opportunity to take all that I have learned and apply it in a new context; to face new challenges; to learn new things; to develop new skills; and to meet new people. And, as I look at my decision to leave jobs, it has been when I have accomplished what I set out to do, when I have moved from addressing the challenges for which I was hired to maintaining the status quo.

At the other end of the continuum is a man I met a few years ago. “Bill” went to work for an employer directly out of college. Decades later he retired from the same employer, in the same department as he started. Within two years, unable to adapt to retirement, he became a consultant. You guessed it; he consults to his former employer.

Clearly, for Bill and me, the act of starting a new job has very different meaning; it is a very different change.

If that is the case, how can all changes be the same?

What those of us who have immersed ourselves in the field of change have learned is this. While the nature of the disruptions to expectations may be countless, the patterns of human response are consistent and they are predictable.  It doesn’t matter whether the change is inconsequential or transformational. It doesn’t matter whether the change is perceived as positive or as negative. It doesn’t matter whether the change is at the deeply personal level, is a change at work, or is societal in nature. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Tampa, or Topeka, or Tokyo. All of these factors may affect the nature of the change, and even the outward reaction to it. What they do not affect is the predictability of the response patterns.

This deep understanding of change provides strong guidance on how to successfully navigate any change. Let me just highlight a few.

  1. Understand how difficult the change journey will be as seen through the eyes of those who have to travel it. is it a major or minor disruption? Do they perceive it is a positive or negative change? Does it require changes in behavior, or does it go deeper, requiring different ways of thinking as well? Understanding the difficulty will allow you to appropriately calibrate the response.
  2. Prepare for change. Learn the patterns. Know, for example, that even if the change is seen as positive, if it is a major change, the time will come when strong resistance will surface. (Just think of the journey from dating, to commitment, to marriage, to building and sustaining a long-term relationship.) If you understand that  then you will recognize that your doubts, your questioning, those very specific problems you encounter are not signs of something being wrong, but are a part of the inevitable cycle of change. With that understanding, you are able to respond differently.
  3. Knowing the patterns allows you to also prepare for–and thus execute–any specific change differently. Given that change is driven by a loss of control, for example, how, when, and to what degree are you able to return a sense of control for those who are being disrupted?

Underlying each of my Change Mentor posts is the application of this understanding. It guides how I approach each aspect of each disruptive change in my life. It doesn’t turn “change” into “unchange;” it is still disruptive. But knowing what to expect does lessen the level of disruption and provides clear guidance on shaping the path forward. It helps me never feel like a victim of change, even when it comes from the outside and I see it as negative.

Change is inevitable. Every change is different. Every change is the same.

Join the conversation… Share one of your biggest “Aha’s” or lessons learned about change. Do you think that there are underlying patterns in our response to change, regardless of the nature of the change? Add your comments below.


When Life Gives You Lemons… Make Cherry Pie a la Mode!


lemons Life gives us lemons. Its not that we ask for them; we may not even expect them. Then–suddenly–there they are. Your best client calls to tell you that their business has taken a downturn, and they will be using your services a lot less starting today. Your business partner doesn’t come back from vacation, and you open the bank statement to find the accounts drained. your life partner tells you that you can spend all the time you want at the office; he (or she) is leaving you. That casual aside about your boss that you thought you said in confidence after one-too-many drinks now has you sitting in front of her desk.

What we are often told is, When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. 

Sometimes, a lemon is just a lemon. There is nothing that we can do with it.

Sometimes, lemonade is a good option…especially if you like lemonade and it is a hot summer’s day. For many years, I thought this was a great response to the negative surprises–large and small–that are a part of life. However, I have learned that while it is sometimes a good response, it is not always the best one.

If you permit me to shift analogies for a minute, I can explain.

When you fall off a horse, the first thing you should do is get back on. 

If you are an equestrian, and you are not injured, this is the case. It shows the horse that you are not afraid of him, and that he cannot get away with throwing you.

But if you are not an equestrian, it may not be the right thing to do. It may be a signal that you should head toward the pool, or the tennis court, or maybe even get out the water colors and easel.

The simple truth is, not all of us belong on the back of a horse. You may have grown up on the farm or ranch. Perhaps you come from a multi-generational family of horse riders. Or, you thought you could gain fame and fortune on the back of a horse.

But, when you fall off a horse, it may be a good time to re-assess your reasons for riding in the first place.

Whether you have been riding for a day or for decades, is it still right for you tomorrow? 

If it is, then get back on the horse. (Sometimes lemons are just lemons.)

If it is not, then do you continue to pursue a riding-related option such as barn manager or blacksmith? (I would see these as the equivalent of making lemonade.)

Or, is it time to step back, reassess things, and go in a totally new direction?

Sometimes the best advice is, When life gives you lemons, make cherry pie a la mode. Don’t be a victim. Don’t stick to what you know even when you know it is not right for you. Go for what you want. For me, cherry pie a la mode wins out over lemonade any day!


What is your cherry pie a la mode? Are you going for it?

Whose Change Is This Anyway? Does It Really Matter?


Sometimes we are very conscious of the process that has brought us to the verge of–or even into the heart of–a life-altering change. The light bulb came on. We reflected on the idea, shaping it, “fleshing it out.” We engaged others in our thinking, taking their feedback to further refine it. When we are ready to move forward, we are proud to face the world (or some portion of it), and say “I am changing…”

Then there are the times when it was somebody else’s light bulb that went off. The first time we hear of the change, it hits us like the proverbial whack on the side of the head. The company is downsizing; the compensation structure is being significantly modified; the divorce filing is waiting on the kitchen table when you get home from another way-too-long day at work. Whose change is this anyway? How would you answer?

  • The company is downsizing; you are being laid off. __ My change  __Not my change
  • The compensation structure is being significantly modified; you will have to think and work differently–perhaps significantly harder–to earn the same income. __My change __Not my change
  • When you left for work, it seemed like any other day; the papers filing for a divorce are waiting on the kitchen table when you get home. __My change  __Not my change

For some people the answer to the first two (or even all three) scenarios is “Not my change.” This can be played out in any number of ways, but the bottom line is: “I am a victim of circumstances.”

One of the early lessons I learned about change is this: We cannot always control the hand we are dealt. We do have the ability to control our response to it. What that means for me is, quite simply, if the change affects me, it is my change. It doesn’t matter if I formulated it. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t have a clue that it was heading my way. It doesn’t matter if I have everything–or nothing–to say about the how, why, what, when, where, or how of the change. I do have a say about my response to it.

Perhaps the most powerful application I have seen of this principle was in the early 1990’s. I was Deputy Director of Bailey House, a nonprofit providing permanent housing and support services to homeless men and women with AIDS. Back then, an AIDS diagnosis was often seen as a death sentence; the treatments available today weren’t even on the horizon. Yet over and over again, our clients refused to accept the role of victim. They would step up to this life-challenging change and say, “This opens up the opportunity for me to get the support that I need to take control of my life and turn it around.” And, over and over again, they did just that!

Whose change is it anyway? Does it matter?

If it affects you, it matters whether or not you claim it as yours. It matters whether you approach it as victim or victor.

What do you think? What has your experience taught you? Comments welcome!