Is change hard?

Many roads crisscrossing in a disorienting way, with road signs pointing all over There are many reasons why change feels hard.

The unknown is scary

We’ve all seen (and probably experienced) how easy it is to stay in uncomfortable – and even painful and dangerous – situations because they’re known and familiar. As poet and author Anais Nin famously said,

And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

In order to change, we must acknowledge the anxiety and fear and explore options for mitigating what we perceive to be the risks. We cannot just ignore the emotional impact of change, even when we wish we could, or think we should. It’s not a matter of “willpower” or “engagement” or “motivation” – and I put those words in quotation marks* because in this instance, they’re simply irrelevant to what’s really going on. Humans are not wired to embrace uncertainty, and change is inherently uncertain.

And then there’s the question of identity

We have many layers of identity, often unconscious.

In order to change, we must actively understand both the current identity (which is holding us in place as the person or organization we are now), and the new identity (the ways in which we will be different after the change).

We may consciously want the change we’re seeking to make – we may want it very deeply – but without understanding the commitments we have to the current identity, that current identity will hold us back.

This is true on a group level as well as a personal level. Organizations have identities, departments and teams within organizations have identities, and if we as leaders of change don’t recognize this, acknowledge it, and help our teams understand that what’s important about those identities will be carried forward – that’s one of the reasons why organizations struggle to be successful in their strategic change initiatives.

And then there’s grief

All change involves grief, because all change requires us to leave something behind. If we don’t consciously acknowledge this grief and allow space for it, we will, again, be held back from progress in the change we’re attempting to create.

To lead change – whether for our own personal life, or as leaders within an organization – we must understand more than the tasks or steps that will create the change; we must also understand, navigate, and lead ourselves and our teams through the emotions of change. Merely understanding the tasks is change management – a necessary, but not sufficient, skillset.

So yes, some aspects of change are hard

But mostly change is uncomfortable. It’s vulnerable. It brings up a lot of emotional content that’s challenging, especially in a work environment.

Change isn't hard - it's uncomfortable, vulnerable, and emotionally challenging. Being a change leader means having the skills and tools to navigate All That and succeed.Click To Tweet

The sooner we accept that we’re humans, that humans have emotions, and that those emotions aren’t going away – the sooner we’ll start being more successful and less stressed in leading change.

Want to know how to handle these emotions and lead change – without the stress? My course Change Leadership: strategies for success could be exactly what you’re looking for. Take a look! 

* Fun fact: those unnecessary quotation marks are called “scare quotes” because they’re intended to draw attention and create doubt.

gljudson Change leadership

Are you a “lifelong learner”?

Whiteboard reading "To-Do List: LEARN"“I’m a lifelong learner!”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say that, or read it in a resume or on a LinkedIn profile, or saw it in some sort of social-media meme … I don’t know if I’d be set for life, but I’d certainly be richer than I am.

The problem with feel-good sayings like this is that they usually don’t translate into action, change, different ways of doing things, improvement, or at least experimentation in the hopes of improvement.

Reading a book, watching a TED talk, attending a conference session – it makes us feel good. It makes us feel like we’re doing something important.

We’re being a Lifelong Learner. Woo-hoo us!

But – but – but.

If you’re not doing something differently, or doing something new, or trying something out – you haven’t learned a thing. Not. A. Thing. As in, nothing.

You’ve entertained yourself, which is great. And if that was your intention, go for it! I entertain myself all the time with books, TV shows, movies, and even, occasionally, with books that I thought I was going to learn from.

But you haven’t learned anything, because learning is in the doing. Yes, you need to read, watch, or listen to the information first. But then – do something with it.

Reading, watching, and listening is enjoyable.

Actually learning something is often not. It’s confusing. It’s awkward. And we don’t like feeling confused and awkward.

It’s confusing and awkward because we’re learning, and learning (doing) new things is almost always confusing and awkward.

To learn something, we have to DO it. Not just read about it, or listen to a podcast about it. DO IT!Click To Tweet

I recently heard a podcast interview where the interviewee mentioned something that I immediately adopted. After finishing a book, he writes down three takeaways, AND – here’s where the proverbial rubber meets the proverbial road – he writes down what he’s going to do based on those takeaways.

Something to think about, whether for a book, a TED talk, a conference session, or any situation where you’re taking in information and hoping to actually learn something.

Learning is in doing. Always.

What are you learning?

More on why learning feels so awkward in this article

Change is all about learning new, different things. Leading change is a whole new skillset. See more (learn more!) at this link.

gljudson Owning your career

What people *say* isn’t what they *do*!

Portion of a black-and-white clock face with the hands pointing to the words TIME FOR CHANGE I’m presenting – virtually, of course – at the OHIMA conference this week. Subject: Change Leadership.

The conference organizers asked the speakers for some pre-session warmup questions about our topic.

This is what I sent:

  1. When I’m asked to lead change, I…
  2. My favorite ways to resist change are…
  3. Being required to change makes me feel…

I’m fascinated by the answers attendees are posting on the virtual conference platform; they give me a window into people’s thoughts about change and leading change.

Because here’s the interesting challenge: how someone answers a theoretical question isn’t going to be how they act in a real situation. The theoretical question invites a theoretical, intellectual answer, often based on what we think is the “right” thing to say or do – or what we wish or hope we’d say or do. And when we answer in a public setting, whether it’s a conference or a team meeting, we have the added pressure of “But what will they think of my answer?”

One of the case studies I’m putting together for the Change Leadership: strategies for success program is about a company-wide cross-department knowledge management project. All the department heads agreed that it was a great idea … in the meeting with the CEO, COO, and Sales VP. Outside that meeting, it was a different story.

As leaders of change, we need to recognize the reality that there will almost always be a gap between what people say about their participation in the change, and what they actually do. If we understand this, we avoid being blindsided by resistance that, when we don’t understand this, feels like it comes up out of nowhere.

Change initiatives fail all the time. Usually it’s attributed to poor communication, poor planning, scope creep, and so on. In my view, however, these are surface reasons – the symptoms, if you will. The root cause is the natural human resistance to change, which is based in neurological realities around safety, uncertainty, and survival. When change leaders understand this, they can manage it. When they don’t, they’re overlooking the human factor of change and, in short, they’re not change leaders; they’re change managers.

Change projects fail all the time. Communication, planning, and scope creep are the symptoms, not the root cause.Click To Tweet

In that case study, the person leading the change could easily have failed if she hadn’t recognized the reality of how the department heads actually felt about the project. Instead, well aware that what’s said to executive leaders for political purposes isn’t necessarily what will be acted upon, she was able to take steps to bring the department heads into alignment – even if it was begrudgingly at first.

Change leadership skills are different from change management skills. Both are essential; neither are sufficient on their own.

Check out the course Change Leadership: strategies for success

Why should you care about change leadership? If I haven’t already convinced you, try this article.

gljudson Change leadership

Change leadership? Who cares?

Photo of blue & green paper boats being led by a red boatIt’s odd to me that change leadership is so often overlooked when companies embark on a big strategic change.

The focus is typically on change management – which is primarily about project management: how we get from here to there, planning, resource allocation, task assignments, status tracking, and so on. A big strategic change initiative may have multiple projects, of course, but still the overall focus tends to be on the process of Getting It Done.

But still, many change initiatives struggle and falter and even fail outright. Typically, that’s attributed to basic management issues, such as poor communication, bad planning, scope creep, and so on.

Leaders consistently overlook the people aspect of change.

Let’s face it: as much as we intuitively know it’s not true, we still tend to cling to the myth that people at work have (or are supposed to have) no emotional reactions to what’s happening. We’re advised (as a quick Google search will inform you) to not worry about what others think, to “know your worth,” and “let things go.”

But work is personal. We’re humans, not robots, and we can’t shut down our emotional reactions when we start the workday. It’s a neurological impossibility and psychologically unhealthy.

Work is personal. We're not robots. And if we want change initiatives to succeed, we need to understand the emotional impact and individual motivations of the employees involved.Click To Tweet

And when we learn to recognize and manage our reactions to change – our own as well as our employees’ and colleagues’ – we become change leaders.

Which means the change initiatives we lead and in which we participate are far more likely to succeed. If that sounds like it saves time, money, and alleviates major stress – you’re absolutely right.

I’ll be writing more about this topic; to see the full list of articles on Change Leadership, click here.

The skills of change leadership are NOT the same as those of change management. Check out the course Change Leadership: strategies for success

And it’s never “Just a business decision.”

gljudson Change leadership

Why we don’t USE what we LEARN?

Photo of a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair wearing a print blouse and with her eyes wide open and startledHow does that work again?

If you’ve been to a conference, workshop, or training program, or if you’ve read a book or article teaching something you wanted to learn, you’ve almost certainly had that thought.

How does that work again?

You were intrigued by what you’d learned. You were excited to put it into practice.

And then you got back to your desk and …

How does that work again?

What’s going on here?

It’s simply neuroscience.

Your brain doesn’t learn by reading, listening, or watching. 

It learns by doing.

Now, obviously you have to get the information somehow, or you’re just scrambling around reinventing endless wheels. So, yes, attending conferences, going to workshops, reading books – it’s all good.

But it’s not enough.

I find myself deeply frustrated by books that ask questions, making me stop reading in order to think and write. Deeply. Frustrated.

BUT those are the books that actually help me create change in my business and my life. 

That is, if I actually do the thinking and writing, instead of setting the book aside “until I have time.” (Yeah, right. I just reminded myself of at least one book waiting for me to come back to it.)

If we truly want to learn something, we can’t be passive about it. We can’t expect to make progress just by soaking up information. 

We have to do the thing.

Which means feeling awkward and uncomfortable. Learning something new means we’re doing something new, and “something new” is inevitably going to feel awkward and uncomfortable, and probably confusing and maybe vulnerable as well.

Learning feels awkward, uncomfortable, confusing. That's how it's supposed to be. You can't learn just by reading, watching, or listening; you have to DO THE THING.Click To Tweet

And that’s where all too many people stop. We don’t like feeling awkward, uncomfortable, confused, and vulnerable.

But “awkward, uncomfortable, confused, and vulnerable” will eventually become “familiar, practiced, and confident.”

If, that is, you don’t stop. If you do the work and apply the learning.

That’s the only real way forward. 

For more about DOING, read this: Do the Verb!

Practice comes in many ways: doing, obviously, but also (as I mentioned) thinking and writing – and exploring case studies. Which is why all those, and more, are included in the course Change Leadership: strategies for success. Click the link to learn more.

gljudson Owning your career

“Just” a business decision?

Photo of a Black businesswoman sitting in front of a laptop, gazing thoughtfully out the office window“It’s just a business decision.”

That, my friend, is an excuse for doing something you know is going to hurt someone – maybe multiple someones – and not taking appropriate responsibility for it, nor finding a way to mitigate the impact.

It’s never “JUST” a business decision. 

Many (many) moons ago, I worked for a software company where the CEO had risen through the ranks of finance.

I have good friends who are CPAs (hi, Sherry!), so this is in no way a knock on all accounting and finance folks.

But this CEO fit the stereotype exceptionally well.

In hindsight, I can see that he never learned that empathy and vulnerability are actually leadership — and life — strengths. But that showed up in the office as rigidly fact-based, unwilling to admit that emotions might play a part in the workplace, and almost relentlessly unaware of how his decisions impacted others.

This CEO “eliminated my position” as Director of the Knowledge Management department … by email.

It was “just a business decision.”

But here’s the thing: every decision you make has an impact on someone, and usually multiple someones.

The decision may very well be the right decision. Sometimes things have to be done that hurt people. Sometimes layoffs are necessary. Sometimes people have to be fired because they’re not the right person for the job. Sometimes restructuring and upheaval is required to accomplish objectives.

And sometimes strategic change is necessary to keep the business growing, even when that change is hard for some, maybe all, involved.

But calling it “just” a business decision is a cop-out. It’s an attempt to avoid the messy, but inevitable, emotional reactions and resistance. It’s an outdated commitment to the old lie that emotions don’t belong in the workplace, as if we could somehow take them off at the office door, hang them on a peg, and collect them on the way out.

You’re human. Your employees are human. We’re all human. And therefore, we have emotions. We react to things that feel hard, things that aren’t what we want.

You’re going to make decisions that hurt people.

It’s never “just business.” And there are always ways to make things easier for the people impacted.

It's never 'just a business decision.' Click To Tweet

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Effective change leadership is different from change management; both are essential, neither are sufficient on their own, if you want to succeed. Learn more about change leadership here.

gljudson Professional empathy

Leadership and mental health

Photo of a white woman with a brown ponytail, wearing a red sweater, leaning her forehead on her laptop.

Employee mental health is the top priority for almost every HR person I’ve been in contact with recently.

We’re not wired, mentally, emotionally, or physically, to undergo extended periods of uncertainty and stress. Yet what has this last year been, but … an extended period of uncertainty and stress? I’m sure I don’t need to convince you of that.

So what can you do to support your team, without overstepping the boundaries of your qualifications and role?

Name the elephant in the room

If you’ve been around me for any length of time, you know one of my favorite rants is on the insane notion that we can somehow separate from our emotional experience whilst we’re at work.

We’re human, and that means we have emotions. And those emotions aren’t something we can set aside on the way to our desk, and then pick back up again when we finish the workday.

Trying to do so only increases stress.

I’m not suggesting that your Zoom meetings should become therapy sessions – far from it.

I am saying that it’s okay to name the elephant in the room. Let your team know that everyone is stressed, everyone is working under difficult circumstances, and that’s real and part of the “now normal.”

It’s also worth pointing out that just because one person appears to have more challenges, that doesn’t mean anyone else’s challenges aren’t … challenging. Comparison is irrelevant. Everyone’s experience is their experience; it’s personal, individual, and not relative to anyone else’s.

Red, yellow, green

Jerry Colonna, executive coach, startup consultant, and founder at, uses a simple tool with his team. At the start of meetings, they each say just one word about how they are that day: red (really stressed), yellow (not great, but not awful), and green (totally cool and okay).

This requires some vulnerability, but it’s extremely helpful for everyone on your team to know how their colleagues are doing, and therefore to understand what they can expect from them. For instance, if you have a team member who’s flagged himself “red,” you’ll know to take it a little easy on him; on the other hand, your “green” employee can be challenged on a due date or deliverable – and so on.

Want an even easier way to indicate state of mind? Make up little flags or paddles that people can use to indicate where they’re at. Then they don’t have to say a thing, but just have the red, yellow, or green sign in view on their desk. Or, for a little more fun, try using sad / neutral / happy emojis.

It’s okay to care

I was listening to Brene Brown’s podcast Dare to Lead, and in one of the first episodes she quotes an Air Force General: “We actually say, going all the way up, that affection for the people we lead is non-negotiable.”

If the military can do it, you can too.

Leadership and employee mental health: it's okay to care!Click To Tweet

Find ways that work for who you are to be aware of – and care about – your individual employees’ stress and anxiety levels, and to show them that you care about their wellbeing. Check in with them in ways that match your style as well as that of your employees. This could be a private Slack message, a text message, a phone call, an e-card (I’m a big fan of Jacquie Lawson‘s animated cards) – whatever seems right for you and appropriate for the employee in question.

And be aware, too, of what options you have to suggest to an employee who’s struggling. Check with your HR department: is there a resource they can offer, such as an EAP (Employee Assistance Program)? If not, can you work with HR to either bring such a program in to your company, or to find other resources to offer?

You, too!

How are you doing? What are you doing to stay on track, emotionally, personally, and professionally?

As leaders, it’s easy to put our focus on everything except ourselves: the work that needs to get done, the members of our team, and then, of course, our families and friends.

So take some time every day to stop. Pause. Check in with yourself. What do you need, right now, this moment, to feel even a little bit better? Water? A quick dance party with yourself? A satisfying stretch? A message to a friend or family member, just to feel more connected?

It doesn’t have to be a big thing to create just a little more space and ease to your life – and that of your employees.

Whatever we might wish – change isn’t going to stop happening. Leading through change, whether it’s at the team, department, company, or global level (hello, pandemic!), is a different, and exceedingly important, skillset from managing change. Learn more about change leadership here.

gljudson Professional empathy

Change and loss aversion

Graphic of a question mark in the center of radiating rainbow-colored arrowsWhy do we want to create change?

Based on our actions (hello, New Year’s resolutions!), we think we want to change more than we actually do change.

And the same is often true of organizational change initiatives, as illustrated by the sad statistic that 70% of change initiatives either fail outright, or aren’t sustained over time.

That’s a really sad statistic, especially when we stop to think about the impact of that on people’s careers – and on corporate finances. I recently interviewed someone for a case study on strategic change who described a multi-million-dollar failure.

That is what one might call non-trivial, and there are, of course, many factors that played a part in the outcome. (The case study is for my new course Change Leadership: strategies for success.) 

The point I want to look at here is – what actually drives the desire for change, and how does that affect whether or not we succeed? Because it really is a whole lot easier to stay put with our established habits, routines, patterns, and ways of doing things. Neurologically speaking, the brain far prefers habit and routine – it doesn’t like to expend the extra energy it takes to create the new neural pathways that support doing new things or doing old things in new ways. 

So – why change?

Because ultimately, change is to solve a problem.

We create change to solve a *problem* - and that's important to remember even as we communicate a vision of the desired outcome.Click To Tweet

We don’t put ourselves through the stress and challenge of significant change – whether that’s establishing a new personal workout routine or implementing a new corporate-wide technology or taking on a new leadership role – whatever it may be – for grins and giggles.

We do it to solve a problem.

The new workout routine solves a health problem: we don’t feel well, we have poor stamina and can’t do the things we want to do, or we might even have a significant medical diagnosis.

Within organizations, new technology solves a competitive problem: the company is struggling in the marketplace and failing to attract new customers.

For our careers, taking on new leadership responsibilities solves a professional problem: we don’t want to be stuck in an unsatisfying role or feel like we’re not accomplishing our career goals.

And so on.

Change initiatives are often defined in terms of the desired outcome: being healthy and fit, meeting sales targets, achieving professional success.

We tend to forget – or not be aware – that loss aversion is a real thing. In brief, it simply states that we feel worse about losing $10 than we feel good about gaining $10. (The link on loss is to a behavioral science think-tank article; the link on aversion is to Wikipedia’s entry on loss aversion. Both open in new tabs.)

Therefore, when we define change initiatives, whether personal, professional, or organizational, we need to communicate the problem we’re solving as well as the outcome we desire.

What is the loss we will experience if we don’t complete this change? How will it impact us individually and as an organization?

Don’t leave out the “individually” part. Employees will understand the organizational impact of failure, but they will feel the impact that organizational failure could have on them, and it’s the feeling of loss that you need in order to help people understand the importance of their participation in the change.

So – define it. Why change? What is the problem you’re solving by undertaking this change initiative? What is the danger you face if you stick with the status quo?

Change leadership requires a different skillset from change management. For success, both are necessary; neither are sufficient on their own. You can see a short video on the challenges of change here.

And the course Change Leadership: strategies for success is available here.

gljudson Change leadership

When things are deeply weird

Silhouettes of businesspeople in shades of black and blue, standing in front of a windowAs leaders, how are we to handle events that happen outside the company, but have a significant impact on our employees?

This is a question that comes up more often than one might prefer.

On 9/11, I was still working in corporate, an executive in a midsize technology company on the U.S. West Coast. We had a number of employees travelling that day – salespeople on sales calls, consultants on site with clients.

I had to suggest to our CEO that we send a company-wide email message reassuring everyone that all our people were safe and that we were bringing them home as soon as possible. He seemed downright startled that I’d think this was necessary.

As Director of the consulting division, I also had to suggest to him that we establish policies for travel over the next few months. Would we require employees to get on a plane, even if they were anxious and potentially panicky? How would we handle requests not to travel? Would people willing to travel be rewarded in some way, and was that fair to those who weren’t because of their fears?

Tough questions.

Into every leader’s life comes a moment when they have to answer tough questions regarding external events. The pandemic raised questions and concerns about working from home, child care, how to manage and evaluate suddenly-remote employees’ productivity, what to do about coming back to the office, and would it even be legal to require employees to be vaccinated?

I can’t answer these questions. They’re all highly nuanced and relative to your individual company, your senior leadership, and the state or country in which your business is located and therefore to the local laws and regulations.

But I’m sure you, your HR leaders, and your senior executives have been and are (or should be) thinking about them.

And then we have the events in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, January 6th, 2021. Was it a riot, an insurrection, a protest that got out of hand? Whatever it was, and whatever events follow (as I write, the FBI is raising concerns about violence at all state capitols in the days ahead, preceding the inauguration on January 20th), employees are concerned, anxious, fearful, and looking to their leaders to provide some sort of guidance about what to think and how to behave.

Is it fair to you, as a leader, to have this responsibility?

Well, actually, yes. You’re a leader, and that means more than just delegating tasks, managing budgets, conducting performance reviews, setting strategy. It means that you have – hopefully, anyway – a certain status in the eyes of your employees, a level of authority that goes beyond just what happens during business hours.

As a leader, what do you say or do when external events have a real impact on your team and their productivity (and peace of mind)?Click To Tweet

Being a leader means setting aside your own beliefs and doing your best to understand that some people on your team – especially BIPOC* individuals who see the unmistakeable difference between how authorities responded to the events of January 6th versus those of Black Lives Matter protests, for instance – may be upset, triggered, and more anxious than you might consider reasonable. (If you’re a BIPOC leader, you already know this.)

Being a leader means making very sure that no one on your team is harassed in any way for their reaction or for their beliefs.

It means making very sure that anyone who might be hateful or potentially violent is not given the opportunity.

And it means understanding that productivity is going to wobble, at the very least, when there are challenges and upheavals such as these.

You have to decide how you’ll talk to your employees about what has happened, what may happen, and the unexpected things will inevitably arise in the future.

All I ask is that you refuse to do what that CEO did, at the company I worked for during 9/11. Don’t abdicate the responsiblity to speak to your people. Don’t fail to reassure them – if you can. (I’m sure I don’t have to say, don’t lie to them!) Don’t let your own anxiety keep you from acknowledging and empathizing with theirs.

You may be constrained by your senior leadership in what you can say – but please say something.

* BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color

Leadership isn’t ever for the faint of heart. It requires emotional labor and can be exhausting, as I write here.

BIPOC is just one of many terms related to discrimination of all kinds. This glossary (updated to Version 7 last week) might help if there are terms you or your team aren’t altogether sure about.

gljudson Professional empathy

Got misocainea?

New ideas are the lifeblood of business, creativity, learning, growth – of life itself.Cartoon of businessman reacting with fear at something on his computer screen

And yet so often we fight against them. We resist the threat of change that new ideas bring into our careers and our lives. 

Obvious case in point: how many companies proclaimed that they couldn’t have everyone working from home, it just wasn’t technically or operationally feasible.

And then came the pandemic, and guess what? The new idea – working from home – became a necessity instead of a “new idea.”

Misocainea: a hatred of new ideas. (With thanks to the Wordsmith’s Word a Day email.)

New word: 'misocainea' - a hatred of new ideas. Which gets in the way of change - and going back to some 'old normal' isn't the answer, either. Who's resisting new ideas???Click To Tweet

As we come into a new year, what new ideas have you been resisting?

Have you been yearning to go back to “normal”?

I confess I cannot wait to be able to go out to dinner again. So yeah, there are some “normal” things well worth going back to.

But definitely not the whole package.

So what new ideas could you look forward to, instead of resisting?

How can you introduce something new in your career? in your life? in your ways of leading and being a leader?

We need new ideas and new approaches to leadership, as I write here.

And in this new world of upheaval, we need to consider our place as leaders. What IS leadership, anyway?

CHANGE IS HARD, and that’s why I’m creating an online WORKSHOP. It’s in development with early-adopter pricing. Read all about it here.

gljudson Strategic thinking