Don’t fear change

For as long as I can remember, people have been saying that there is so much change <em>these days</em>, but ‘these days’ of change have been going on for a long time now for them to be seen as something new. Perhaps a better way to look at it is to acknowledge that there has always been a lot of change, but when we look back over earlier days, it is often the things that stayed constant that we now remember most. And there always will be much that stay constant. You will often hear people say that ‘change is the only constant’, but that simply isn’t true. Think about your own life now. For every thing that is in the process of change, there is much, much more that is staying the same (for now). Our attention in the present is drawn to what is changing (understandably so, because change presents elements of both threat and opportunity), and we tend to lose sight of what is staying the same. But, when we look back over the past, it is often what persisted over time that is to the fore, thereby giving us a slightly distorted picture of the role of change and constancy.

The more complex reality, of course, is that, wherever we look – past, present or future, there will be elements of change and elements of constancy, and the two will be interacting in complex ways. For a long time now there has been a tendency to adopt an oversimplified view of change and not see the fuller picture.

Eastern philosophy can help us make better sense of change, especially in terms of the concept of ‘impermanence’ which refers to the idea that we should not assume everything will stay the same – we should be more tuned in to the fact that change is part and parcel of being alive. If we adopt the expectation that everything should remain constant, then we will be disappointed and possibly even fearful when things do change. This can then create a sense that change is some sort of enemy.

I am certainly not suggesting that we should go to the opposite extreme and adopt the position of some in the management field who seem to think that change is by definition a good thing and something to be promoted uncritically. I remember running a leadership course once from which one of the participants benefited very little. This was because he arrived with the idea that leadership is basically about change management, and he left with exactly the same idea, having filtered out everything I and the other participants said to the contrary over the two days.

Change can be positive, but it can also be negative, catastrophic even, and so we are right to be wary of change. This brings us back to the idea of realism. Optimists like to focus on the positives and are thus likely to see change in positive terms. Pessimists tend to focus on the negatives, and are thus likely to see change in terms of threat. Realists are the people who acknowledge both, who are realistic about the positive potential of change, but are also tuned in to the negative potential too – not fearful, but alert to the possibilities, and thus better placed to take advantage of any opportunities presented by change, but also to guard against any harm that change may bring.

So, when the question of change comes up, beware the danger of oversimplifying it and recognise that approaching it in a spirit of realism will work much better than automatically fearing it or uncritically embracing it.