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The Psychology of Change: Tips to Help You Keep Your Cool When the Heat’s Turned Up

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March/April 1999 - Volume 78, Number 2

by C. Stephen Byrum, Ph.D.

The primary issue is not whether change will occur or when it will occur. Nor, is the primary issue the causative explanations for change or the ability to predict it. Without question, change as a reality that can be managed or controlled is usually made by the events which suddenly can surround our lives. Change is an inevitable reality of our existence and, if anything, the rate and intensity of change only increases with the passage of time and the complication of the world we have created. The only real, primary issue is how change can be survived; how we can triumph over change without becoming its victim. If we are able to do this, we may even find times when we can use change to our advantage, or find it as a vital part of a process of evolving growth and development. This article will focus on three ways in which change can be approached with decided advantage.

Change Must Be Depersonalized

We are gifted at taking events of life which are "value neutral"events which simply are what they areand adding tremendous emotional baggage to them. This added and ever-accumulating emotional baggage creates the reality that becomes so difficult to deal with. Often, the emotional baggage which we bring to a situation is what makes it intolerable and overwhelming, not the situation itself. We must always be conscious of making strategic attempts at diminishing subjectivity and allowing our egos to convince us that life is always "about us."

Let me give a brief example of emotional baggage. The college where I taught for over twenty years is about twenty minutes from downtown Chattanooga. The four-line road which connects our campus with downtown is often referred to as "The Amnicola 500" because of the speeds on which it is traveled. To leave campus a few minutes before the hour for a speaking engagement or meeting on the hour was never unusual.

On one of the occasions, I was rushing toward town when my mental preparation for a speech was interrupted by the sound and shake of a tire going flat. What an awful time for a flat tire! I didn’t have time to fix a flat tire! (Notice the immediate movement to over-personalization.) With mounting disgust, I pulled the car over to the side of the road, got out, and walked around to the front, right side. What then transpired didn’t need to be seen by my children. I reached back with my foot and kicked the flat tire, of course, only scuffing my shoe in the process. But I wasn’t finished. I cursed the tire, and then -- looking to heaven -- gasped, "What me, Lord?!?" As if God, or whatever divine forces that control tires, had nothing better to do with their day than to confound mine. I was in a total stew, fretting and ringing my hands, somewhere on the verge of a childish temper tantrum, a panic attack, or a full blown aneurysm.

Of course, in a few moments, I did what ultimately has to be done in a situation like this -- I changed the tire and, now twenty minutes late for the speaking engagement, headed for town. My problems were not over, however. I knew exactly what was getting ready to happen in town. At the parking space which was arranged to be saved, the woman in charge of the meeting would be waiting, having her own panic attack with my name engraved all over it. My over-personalized thought: "God, you know I don’t need this!" Again, I was making it all about me. In fact, the woman, almost on cue, was exactly where I had imagined her being, pacing nervously back and forth. As I got out of my car, she quickly approached, almost pleading: "Oh, Dr. Byrum, Dr. Byrum, I’m so sorry. Our meeting is running behind about half an hour. Can you still speak? Can you stay? Will everything be all right?"

As with most circumstances, all had worked out just fine in the end. I could have kicked myself over and again for all of the emotional energy I had wasted. In fact, I drive probably 40,000 miles a year, and have done so over the past thirty years. In that time, I have had only two flat tires. All things being equal, I should have had maybe two dozen flat tires by now. Why is it so hard for us to bring something of a logical mind into play to balance our tendency to over-personalize and over-emotionalize? Why does an objective perspective get lost so quickly?

Those people who "out think" the events of change survive it much better. In a more formal sense, the basic idea behind Rational-Emotive Therapy is a concentrated focusing on the rational components of the events which surround our lives until the emotional overtones are crowded into the background. This process does not necessarily happen automatically, but it can become a practiced skill. For our own mental and physical well-being, we simply cannot allow events of change which are the common lot of all humanity to take on the character of singular events which happen only to us.

Being Careful About Role Identity

In part of my consulting work in business and industry, I use an extremely insightful, diagnostic instrument called "The Hartman Value Profile," (which will be used in the Land Title Institute’s Management Development Program). The Profile gives a "snapshot" of what might be called the interior landscape of an individual -- a sense of what motivates a person, what will drive a person’s value judgments, and how a person will react to a variety of interpersonal relationships. One index of the Profile looks closely at the intensity of role identity that a person possesses. On one end of the spectrum of this particular index, a person may have very little role identity and see themselves more as a unique individual as compared to an extension of the roles and responsibilities involved in a job. On the other end of the spectrum, a person’s role identity is very strong, and the job may become a powerfully strong part of self-esteem and self-definition.

I can personally identify with this index. I feel a strong sense of role identityI see myself as a teacher. I may be able to teach in many different environmentsprofessor, counselor, consultant, seminar leader, etc.but if my ability to teach in some context were taken away, my personal life would be tremendously impacted. My job would not simply be threatened or in some kind of jeopardy. My identity as a person would be compromised. The Profile is decisive in demonstrating that the stronger role identity that a person has, the less able a person is to deal with change. Change for this person is never simply a passing reality of life; change is a distinct threat to personal identity.

So, what is the implication of these findings? Should people be encouraged to diminish role identity, give less of themselves to their work, or resist ever letting a job take on the character of a "calling?" Such a diminishing of the place of fulfilling and meaningful work in our lives should never be encouraged. Often people who see their work on the level of "calling" make a difference in the workplace that is remarkable. Yet, it must be asserted - and is probably very logicalthat the person with the high role identity is highly vulnerable to change.

However, we do need to take a great deal of care in understanding the variety of disadvantages we give ourselves when role identity becomes too overly pronounced. We may be more easily manipulated by others who realize or sense that we would do almost anything to "keep our jobs" or "by implication" keep our identities. We could even be victimized or be subjected to abusive unfairness if we convey that we would "take" almost anything to keep our jobs/keep our identities. At the very minimum, when the thought of change puts us into a near panic attack stage, we have a clear indication that too much personal identity is being given to a job.

The foundation and core of who we are as individuals can flow from the internal self to the external world, or from the external world to the internal self. We can be "made in the image" of our work, or we can make our work in our own "image." When our internal self is more the result of the roles, responsibilities, and obligations we have in the external world, we are extremely susceptible to being hurt by the reality or possibility of change. I must first be "Steve Byrum," a unique person with potential that can be manifested in a multitude of ways. My strength of character must first come from who I am. Then, and only then, can what I do find its proper level of importance. In a similar manner, I must be more defined by the significant relationships that surround my life than by the significant job responsibilities. By following this approach, I have a much better chance of developing a personal identity -as opposed to a role identity - which will sustain me through all kinds of potential role changes. Change may even become an interesting stimulant and catalyst, rather than a dreaded enemy.

Create A "Change Inventory"

All of us need our own, personal "Change Inventory" or "Adaptation Inventory." This highly personal inventory is a conscious and specific record of the major changes that we have had to deal with in our lives and the way we have specifically dealt with these changes. Once we have a concrete "Change Inventory" that we can study and be reminded by, we are usually able to convince ourselves that -- in fact -- we are pretty good at change, fairly creative and resilient people in the face of change, and perhaps more tenacious and even triumphant than we tend to give ourselves credit for being.

Again, let me share an example. I played baseball with a young man in high school that became one of my closest friends. A segment of his life story is intriguing. By the time we were in our senior year, our life goals were well formed; I wanted to go to college and play football, and he wanted to be a soldier. He wanted to carry a rifle and fight in battles. If you were graduating from high school in the mid-1960s with the kind of ambition my friend had, our friendly U. S. Army would have been happy to help in ambition fulfillment. Follow my friend’s story for a moment.

He left our small hometown, where almost everyone knew everyone else, for Fort Knox in Kentucky and the initial buildup for Vietnam. In this new environment, he knew one other person whom he saw one time at a movie on a Saturday afternoon during basic training. He was a stranger in a strange land, but he adapted to all this. My friend was also something of a "free spirit," who had been able to live most of life on his own terms since he was a young teenager. At Fort Knox, people were lined up ten deep ready to tell him what to do, when to do it, how long to do it, and on and on. It was not a place for "free spirits," but he adapted to this

Following basic training, he was sent to Fort Polk in Louisiana, where the Army was doing its pre-Vietnam, jungle training. Of all that he encountered in Vietnam, nothing in his memory was harder than Fort Polk. On one survival mission, he and his unit killed an otter to have food on one night and a huge snake for food the next night. I’m not sure I could have handled this, but he didagain, there was adaptation.

My friend was then shipped out to Vietnam where he adapted to different looking people, different customs, a different language. On his first trip into the field, where he helped guard a firebase, his unit was overrun, and he faced real bullets and real death. Again, he adapted. He was even captured and put into prison for a short while, which challenged the ability to adapt to the hilt. He survived. Finally, he caught malaria, found his dreams of being a soldier come to an end, and returned home to anything but a hero’s welcome.

But, if you met my friend today, you would find a totally sane, positively contributing member of his community. You would find someone who has become a good worker, father, spouse, and as stable and solid a citizen as you could ever meet. I do not know what life might present him with in the future in terms of change, but I am sure that if he takes time to look at all he has successfully triumphed over, he will be able to approach situations of change with confidence and courage. His "Change Inventory" proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has a great capacity to adapt, survive, and almost be a master of change.

Most all of us are the same way. If we focused for a moment on all that we have dealt with, all that we have successfully overcome, all that we have faced, like my friend we would be compelled to come to the conclusion that it is altogether strange that we have the typical reactions to change or the possibility of change that we do. We are good at change! We have unbelievable skills at adapting! If we weren’t pretty good at change, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today. Of course, we don’t need to go looking for change or chaos; it will find us plenty soon enough. But we do need to be honest with ourselves. We have probably survived much more than any work change that could be thrown at us.

After all, we are Americans. We can live in deserts, on mountain tops, at the North and South Pole, in the ocean depths. We can even go to the moon. And, we don’t simply go to the moon; we take our golf clubs and see how far we can hit golf balls! If we actually went to the effort of creating a real, on-paper "Change Inventory" and kept it nearby, we would have a constant reminder, when change occurs, that we are very good at change. We are powerfully creative in our abilities to adapt. We do not need to be afraid of change. We are masters at surviving!

In conclusion, change is an external circumstance that has relative power which ultimately dependsnot on the power of the changes which are taking placebut on the power of our internal selves. If we refuse to overperson-alize, if we carefully draw the line between appropriate and excessive role identity, and if we actually create for ourselves a "Change Inventory," then we can take control of our own lives and destinies in a profoundly significant way. We either take control or we surrender control. When we surrender, we put ourselves at the mercy of change and its agents. The central issue is never what happens to us - the outside circumstances. The central issue is always what happens because of us - the internal sense of self and strength of character that assures survival. Yet, not simply survival, but rather a quality of life which has joy, dignity, and positive meaning. Such a life is not destroyed or diminished by change.

C. Stephen Byrum is the Chief Executive Officer and Primary Consultant of the Byrum Consulting Group, an organization based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His firm specializes in management development, employee assessment, team building, and organization enhancement. He has been active as a consultant in business and industry for almost thirty years, and has developed a reputation for helping organizations understand their managerial and employee interactions and create "better" work environments. Dr. Byrum may be reached at 423-886-5587.



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