Joseph Campbell, best known for his work in comparative mythology, is quoted as having said “the big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” Although this quote wasn’t made in the context of organizational change, I have been thinking about the applicability to change management. The best change leaders do just that, they help organizations and the people within them say a hearty yes to the adventures ahead.
Although saying yes and opening up to adventure sounds great, it isn’t the first instinct for most of us. Most of us instead instinctually have questions… we want to know more about how we will be impacted. We say “maybe,” “let me think about it”, or “this isn’t what I would have chosen.” Just take a moment to think about how this dynamic may play out over and over again in your own life in small ways. We know that people tend to try to re-establish a sense of control, and most of us probably have ample personal examples of that to draw on. Now from those simple examples, think about how it feels to hesitate, and how it feels to say yes. Questioning can feel like a like a lot of intellectual work, and saying yes can feel like an emotional release and even bring cautious exuberance.
Good change leaders understand the natural hesitancy to say a hearty yes. Having questions, gathering information when applied productively can lead to good things for individuals and organizations. In fact the ability to address the logical reasons for change, to outline the business case, is critical for any effective change leader. This is the price of admission. And this task alone, the intellectual challenge of winning over the minds, can be a challenge.
The best change leaders however recognize that there is another significant piece of work to be done, to win over the hearts. This is the emotional work of letting go and opening up to new ways for now. Great change leaders move people not only through compelling arguments, but through paradigm shifts. In my observation, what moves people from “no” to “hearty yes” is less often an intellectual argument, and more often a feeling. The moment when individuals shift from a position of hesitancy to a space of possibility is often more about inspiration, vision, and trust. An intellectual argument might get you to the place of a reluctant yes. But great change leaders take organizations to the space of a hearty yes… to the space of possibility, creativity, collaboration, flow.
To speak to the hearts of employees often takes a great deal of courage. It means acknowledging the very human side of business, which is often devalued. It means talking about things that are sometimes uncomfortable. It means addressing fears and telling the truth. It means reducing the uncertainty when you can, and acknowledging the unknown when it exists.
As I reflect on some of the best change leaders I have worked with, the ones that inspire a
hearty yes, I realize that they are also great story tellers. This is something I imagine Joseph Campbell could appreciate. They make the complex simple and they use metaphor or analogy to create an “ah ha” moment that allows people to embrace possibility. The research of Dr. Robert Leahy, Director of the American Institute of Cognitive Therapy, shows when people are anxious they often fill in the unknown with a negative outcome. The best change leaders offer a story that fills in that uncertainty with possibility, and
calls the individual forward.
This story telling might be as simple as saying “but what if…” in a focused one-on-one conversation. Or it may be painting a radical picture of the future for a crowd. It may be like suggesting you can’t see a masterpiece through a pin hole. Whatever the method, great change leaders help individuals feel moved to step into the journey. That although there is an uncertain outcome, there is great possibility particularly if we choose to say a hearty yes to our adventure.
Contributed by Gina Giannitelli, a Consulting Director at Change Guides LLC