Nobody really talks about the pains of transformation. When speaking about change, leaders have a tendency to dangle the carrot of potential vague future benefits. We need to acknowledge the pains of transformation whether they are at the individual, team or organizational level, so that we can gather the courage to face the different challenges of the changes ahead.

Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process.

Robert Greene

To motivate you, consultants, speakers and leaders are trying to convince you that the transformation will be good for you. Think of a marketing or more to the point the advertising for change: “Drink this, you’ll feel better” or some generic medical advice  “exercise twice a week, it’s good for your health”. So they’re trying  to engage you in giving extra effort, so that you can help them in the desired or strategic transformation, as a willing participant.

However, if we want to give extra effort to something, we also need to understand what we are committing to. We need to understand that we are going to go through some pain. If it was easy, it would already be done. We are willing to go through some pain when we know that the people who asked us to go through this transformation, acknowledge, understand, and value the fact that we are making an extra effort. But most of the time, they are consciously or unconsciously minimizing the pain, as they think it might be too scary and stop you from willingly joining in the cause. [I have this image of the ostrich burying its head in the sand here. ]

What leaders do not understand is that people are courageous, but not blind. So having an honest conversation about the pains of transformation can be a driver rather than a resistance for change. Because we always feel great when we have achieved something difficult

Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.

Helen Keller

So what are these different pains that need to be acknowledged?

We can look at the pains of transformation, as challenges to overcome on four different levels: physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional.

Physical challenges

Ask yourselves how the transformation is impacting your “time & space”. Whether it’s the way we work or the way we interact, your change in priorities, or in working environment. How is it affecting how you use your time? How you use different tools? How it has an impact on your personal, professional life balance? Basically, how is the transformation impacting, and how easy or difficult is it to actually update your way of working to this new way? Remote working has been a real pain for some, having to adjust their whole life organisation in terms of time (less commute but kids schedule), and space (no office, noise pollution, physical dis-comfort etc.)

Intellectual challenges

There is pain in being intellectually challenged. It means that we might require new competencies to be able to navigate the new world and we might not feel very capable to face that challenge. So again, it is important to acknowledge  that the pain of learning new things, the effort and the discipline required when practicing new skills and developing new competencies, new knowledge, new understanding. I have observed many intellectual challenges in clients and organisations who struggled to adapt to new format of training for example, not having the skills internally to develop online content. 

Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

Martin Luther King Jr

Spiritual challenges

I know, spirituality might not always seem to have its place in the workplace. However, more and more, we start to understand that finding meaning in your work is important for long term engagement. And this is what I mean by spirituality here. It is about feeling that what you are doing at work is aligned with who you are and your values and contributes to something bigger than yourself. So the challenges and the pains of transformation at that level are the doubts and questions we have about this potential misalignment: “Do I have signs that this transformation is aligned with my values? Will it help me live the life I want to live or will it go against what I believe in?” And this is definitely what we’ve been going through recently with the coronavirus as a crisis in meaning. People being confined had time to think about their place in the organization, the priorities in their lives and what work means to them.

I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning.

Haruki Murakami (1Q84)

Emotional challenges

We have witnessed many emotional challenges more recently. This is very observable because it does have a direct impact on people’s behaviors. Transformation is a confrontation between a new reality and what we think reality “should” be.  This confrontation might trigger many different emotions. I will only mention a few to illustrate:

  • Fear of the unknown. Because with change, especially at the scale we’ve been experiencing recently, there are no guaranteed results. Moving with a transformation is about taking a risk and not being sure that we will be able to cope, or that the results will actually be beneficial for our lives, personal, professional, career, finance, etc. 
  • Anger of having to let go what we were attach to. Am I going to lose what I had painstakingly gained? Letting go of the old to embrace the new, is it fair? Why should I while others don’t have to? 
  • Fear of not being in control, of not being able to perform as expected, of having to suffer negative consequences to our career development.
  • Sadness over the loss of what once was: myself, my position, my beliefs, my ambitions, my company car, my expertise etc.

New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.

Lao Tzu

So reviewing some of the potential pains of transformation aims to educate the leaders of change, so they can better empathize with the people they call “resistant to change.” Because not everyone resists change for the same reasons, but they might all be put in the same basket, as the naysayers or the backward thinkers, the ones who do not adapt to the new world. All they need is to be understood. And that their pain is acknowledged. Once that has happened, it will become easier to have the courage to go through that pain in order to give energy for the transformation.

It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.

Theodore Roosevelt

So, how do we acknowledge the pains of transformation?

Start by  asking the following questions and be sure to listen to the answers, however “annoying” or “irrational” you might perceive them to be:

  1. How is this transformation affecting your daily life? On a physical, practical and operational level? 
  2. What skills or competencies do you already have than can support the transformation? What will require an effort for you? What skills do you feel you need to develop so you can be confident about your new mission?
  3. How is this transformation aligned, or in conflict with your values?
  4. How do you feel about the transformation? What are you worried about? What do you find frustrating? What do you feel you might lose? What motivates you in our proposed transformation?

Then start a dialogue to build together how to move forward through the pains of transformation with courage.