5 min read

If you have not yet experienced foundation-shaking change, don’t worry, you will. It’s only a matter of time. First reactions to this kind of change are usually not very helpful. In the next paragraphs, I write about the difference between a reaction and a response to foundation-shaking change.

A friend of mine and I were getting ready to do some hiking in the mountains of Costa Rica. We got a hotel room at the last village before the point of departure from which we would set out in the morning. The cot I settled into was located in one corner of the room and Dave was on the other side of the room next to the window. The windows had no screens and the room had no air conditioning so the night was hot and humid. We had just turned off the lights when my bed began shaking violently.

Confused, I instinctively shouted: “Why are you shaking my bed?”

David responded: “How can I shake your bed when I’m all the way over here?” That’s when we realized that something weird was happening. We were experiencing an earthquake.

That brief scenario illustrates what often happens when organizations experience abrupt and disruptive change in the external environment. What should leaders do when they find themselves in a chaotic situation caused by an unanticipated change that is likely to have a direct impact on the organization?

Patterns of Reaction

What too often happens is that people rush into a panic mode where they make bad decisions. Abrupt change triggers an automatic defense reaction that is empowered by fear, particularly the fear of being out of control. The pattern of reaction is fairly easy to recognize once you have become aware of it.

  • Blame Games. Trying to pinpoint the one who is responsible is usually one of the first reactions. It’s like when you and your wife (if you have a wife) are driving along and suddenly you find yourselves in some dark, rough, neighborhood and have no idea how you got there. Immediately, the wife says: “I told you we should have turned back there at the gas station.” The message is clear: “You are the one to blame” (The difference is that in this case the wife is usually right). In organizations a fluster of finger-pointing begins as we suddenly realize we are not where we were supposed to be. Of course, blaming each other solves nothing.
  • Inaccurate Causality. Nor does it help to name a cause if it’s not really the cause. Misidentified causes occur because we usually grab the first solution that appears, the one that seems closest to the problem in terms of time and location. But, that is usually NOT the true cause of the problem. We rush into these apparent solutions only to find that they make the problem worse.
  • Simplistic Solutions. In our confusion and panic paralysis, we engage in what Chris Argyris called “single-loop” problem solving when the situation calls for deep learning. Without going into detail, this basically means that we try to fit all of today’s problems into yesterday’s categories.

Proactive Response

Is there a way to halt this instinctive reaction, at least long enough for leaders to respond more effectively? What can a leader do to help his or her team make a more reasoned and fact-driven response? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Give yourself and your team time and authorization to ask truly open-ended questions and release them from all thinking constraints.
  2. Help your team deal with stress and feelings of confusion. Help them to talk about these feelings and acknowledge them but not to the point of becoming paralyzed by them.
  3. Find effective ways to communicate the big picture. Your team needs the vocabulary, the models, the metaphors, and the new assumptions behind the change. This will enable them to pass on the new model to those who report to them.
  4. Be prepared to be mistaken for the enemy. This is a very real possibility because one of the functions of a leader is to foresee the future slightly sooner than the rest. That means that what you’re seeing, they don’t see, so to everyone else you may sound like a nut case.
  5. Accept the fact that you are never really in control. Control is an illusion because life is simply too complex and change is too widespread for leaders today to control all the variables.
  6. Engage your team in double-loop problem analysis. Take them beyond the typical analysis that seeks to interpret today’s experiences by yesterday’s experiences. Help them to invent new categories, to question sacred assumptions, and to rethink the whole meaning and purpose of the organization, department, or project.

There are times also when it is the leader’s responsibility to serve as the catalyst for the earthquake. Leaders sometimes have to create an earthquake for the long-range good of the company. The bottom line is that leaders help their teams respond rather than react to the tremors of change.

These are just a few ideas but I’m sure you have some things to add to either of these lists. Please by all mean do so in the comments section below. I would love to hear from you.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.


Photo: Broken Rock by sioda. Licensed under Morguefile License.