When the Journey is Killing You

When people are paralyzed and overwhelmed by a problem, the last thing they need is a solution that is as big and as complex as the problem.

Labeling them as resistant won’t help either. Unfortunately this is what organizational change practitioners do all the time. A survery, an index, a type, etc. and the victim is safely positioned in a category. No need to mention that we have the perfect remedy for every category. But guess what: this system is broken.

We need a different conversation. One that gets our attention off the person and on the journey they are stuggling with.

Four stories

1. Jolene
Jolene is a five year old proud girl who desperately wants to dive into the swimming pool. Mom and dad are in the water so everything is safe. She just wants to jump and have fun like her younger brother is doing but she is held back by her own  fear. The fear is driving her nuts. The more mom and dad insist on helping her, the angrier she gets. Finally, she bursts out in tears because she’s no longer able to contain the emotions of anger and fear. She’s just too afraid of this rollercoaster of feelings. Mom and dad are puzzled by the five year old shouting at them in anger.

2. Daryl
Daryl is a sixty-five year old change management guru who desperately wants to wear lenses. He knows that changing from glasses to lenses requires a period of adaptation and new learning. And that’s what’s holding him back. Like Jolene, he desperately wants to be at his destination. Life would be so much easier. His wife is silenced by his procrastination each time she mentions the topic. He is convinced for 200%. Yet, the journey is holding him back.

3. Patrick
Patrick is a forty-five year old CIO who is longing for a stable IT landscape that keeps him out of disaster-recovery mode. It’s no rocket science that the HR systems landscape needs to be reengineered completely from scratch. It was designed to cater for completely different needs, because the company was half the size it is today. Resources are not holding him back. Budget is not the problem. His department is puzzled by his hesitation to go forward. The journey is holding him back.

4. Jane
Jane, a 40 year old mother is considering a serious diet because during the wintertime she has gained some pounds. She desperately wants to lose some weight, eat healthier, do more sports. She’s been there several times. She’s got a library of diets that she followed, but each spring she’s staring at that mountain to climb. Her husband is puzzled by her obnoxious answers whenever he tries to help her. The destination is not frightening her. The journey is.

The Label is the Problem

Call it resistance, call it sabotage or anything else for that matter. The label we give it is not the issue here.

Or wait. Maybe it is.

By labeling these people as resistant we automatically open up a box of remedies to apply like doctor on a patient, like a teacher on a student or like a parent on a child. And this is precisely the last thing that all four of them need: a rescuer who pushes them into a victim role. ‘Here, let me cure that for you’. ‘Wait, stop that and do this instead’.

These people are intelligent, committed and they are living a balanced life. The first thing they need is someone who acknowledges that it is the journey that causes them to stagnate and that pushing harder is not the solution.

Stop focusing on the people. Stop labeling them. Stop healing them. Instead: focus on the journey.

Flylady to the Rescue

This is exactly what the Heath brothers talk about in their 2010 book Switch. The authors use the analogy of an elephant and its rider. The rider represents the rational and logical. The elephant, on the other hand, represents our emotions, our gut response. They are two parts of the human mind and the premise of the book is that change management initiatives need to address both rider and elephant in order to change.

When it comes to motivating ‘the elephant’, Chip and Dan Heath advise to shrink the change and to adopt the Flylady strategy. The Flylady is a coach to thousands of families to get rid of chaos. She defines CHAOS as “Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome”. If your home is such a wreck that just the thought of an unexpected visitor gets you hyperventilating the Flylady can help you. She has a system to bring back peace to your home – one baby step at a time.

Her secret? She resists the temptation of setting up enormous plans and complex methods.

She knows that a solution that is as complex as the problem will not work. Instead, she goes for simple routines that get rid of clutter and put your home and life back in order. It all starts with a shiny sink. Next are the daily and weekly routines and a control journal. Baby-steps is the key word here. As the Heath brothers state:

When people are paralyzed and overwhelmed by a problem, the last thing they need is a solution that is as big and as complex as the problem.

Regardless of the magnitude of the problem, the key to get the elephant moving is to shrink the change. Therefore the advice of the Flylady is simple: ‘5-minute room rescue’, ‘Drink your water’, ‘Don’t obsess, set your timer for 10 minutes for each task, then QUIT!’. And at the end of the day you have real progress.

Let’s try to have a ‘shrinking the journey’conversation with Jolene, Daryl, Patrick and Jane; instead of telling them in what category they belong and what instructions they should follow.

Cartoon used with permission by Dave Walker.
Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

  • Blindbock

    I agree with the point, but I think this is to oversimplify things. The example with Jolene has nothing to do with presenting a “too complex solution”, or applying classic change management tactics. I have a 6-year-old boy, and I’ll tell you that no sensible parent would do something other than focusing on small successful steps, the journey instead of the huge problem. Or are we parents in Sweden so different? Working as a change agent, I wouldn’t label any of the examples as “resistant”. They know the goal, they want to achieve it, they just don’t manage to go there. That’s something else. So who would apply methods related to the Satir change curve, or similar, in these situations? Not me.

  • Hmmmm….. Agreed…. the logic does not apply in both senses.
    You just gave me something to chew on.