Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Being Happy and Successful in the Face of Change

Why can it be so hard for people to change? The neurologists notice that as we age, so the pathways in our brains become more entrenched and physically it is harder for us to create new ones (the "neural networks"). Children learn new languages and tasks much more readily than adults for this very reason. The psychologists notice that as changes happen, so some people become more distressed than others. In fact, some people actively thrive on the changes even during later life - just not the majority.

In a time when change is all around us and it's picking up speed (or is this just me getting older?) change becomes important in determining happiness (a fundamental right of all I believe). As a therapist and coach, sometimes working to reduce organisational stress, there are certain factors that one considers - both from the perspective of the systems of the company and also the needs and perceptions of the individual. It is not necessarily so that events are universally stressful (change for example) as much as the view that one takes of these events. Change for one person might mean losing one's position, taking a salary cut or being pushed unwillingly to learn new skills - whereas for someone else it might be viewed as an opportunity to get out of a dead-end, to experience new challenges and to have more fun. Whether your your cup is half full or half empty, for example, depends entirely upon the view you take of it.

The authors of a popular book, "Who moved my cheese?" point out the many unconsidered benefits to change, with the business fable of 2 mice and 2 little people representing the human worker and the cheese representing happiness and success. The book explores four typical reactions to change: feeling victimised and fearful; getting angry and blaming others; being opportunistic / entrepreneurial; and going along with change. A good question, asked as a challenge to one of the fearful little people is "what would you do differently if you weren't so afraid?". The main criticism of the book is that during times of organisational upheaval, management have been known to mass-distribute this book in an attempt to get everyone onboard quickly, without acknowledging the reality that the change will not be professionally advantageous to all. As the book rightly points out however, change happens, irrespective of whether we want it to or not, and those who can accept and adapt more quickly are likely to be happier and more successful. Getting stuck in fear, resentment, anger or denial do the opposite. Organisations need to note however that they are responsible for considering their impact on the stress-levels of their employees, with the UK's Health & Safety Executive (a governmental regulatory body) defining change as a key factor in contributing to most employee's stress levels increasing. In other words, if an organisation cannot demonstrate that in all areas they have conducted risk assessments and provided adequate support to those vulnerable (being aware also of who is more vulnerable than others), then they can be held accountable for employees being signed off work due to stress (unsurprisingly, the numbers right now are at an all-time high); potentially being sued for long-term disability support.

Psychologists have noticed something interesting that contributes to individual levels of stress differing so greatly and they call this one's perception of "Locus of Control". I use a brief assessment tool with clients not coping and we explore their own perception of control in a given situation. A low internal locus of control score (i.e. poor perception of one's ability to control the outcome of events) and a client can begin to understand why they are prone to feeling victimised or helpless (and so acting accordingly); and an excessively high one and a client can appreciate why they might be feeling angry or blaming. It can be a good starting point to helping someone get their life back on track after a change has happened, or while it is happening.

Of course change doesn't necessarily mean change at work. The same principles apply during any situation that involves loss and change, at home as well as at work. If you are finding the new year bringing in unwanted changes, then considering your ability to take control, where you can as well as where you cannot, and breaking down the change into smaller parts of good and bad (versus all bad), can help provide you with the necessary will to continue on your journey, feeling happier once more.

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