4 Essential Skills for Being Good at Change

This article originally appeared on Jhana, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

If you’re waiting for a time when everything settles down, you’re in for a long wait. Change does not stop.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s actually an opportunity to set yourself apart from your peers — provided you stop thinking of change as something you need to get through and start thinking of it as something you do. All the time. To navigate every change with more confidence, less stress, and better results, apply these four tactics.

1. Notice how you react, then push yourself to better understand the change.

It’s only human to have an emotional reaction to change (e.g., This is going to be amazing! or This change has nothing to do with me or This is a disaster waiting to happen). But your reaction in the moment is almost always based on an incomplete understanding of the change. When you challenge your reaction, you make it possible to think through things on your own or seek out different perspectives.

Try it when:

  • You first hear about a change. If your first reaction is negative (e.g., you think a merger will fail), think of three potential positive outcomes. If your first reaction is positive (e.g., you think the merger will be flawless), think of three potential pitfalls. If that proves difficult, seek out others whose views might differ from yours and ask them explicitly to push back on your thinking (e.g., “I’m having trouble seeing how this merger is going to be good for our company. What upsides do you see?”).
  • You run into an obstacle as you implement a change. Say that you develop a new sales presentation that reflects a strategic shift your company is making. You show it to the sales team, and they give you a harsher critique than you expected. Obviously you’re frustrated after all the work you put in. But consider: This was your first attempt to talk about a major change in your company’s approach. Did you really think you’d perfect it on the first try? Ask yourself, “What can this setback tell me about what I should try next?” If you have trouble figuring that out on your own, who might have ideas for a path forward?
  • You want to give up on a change. Go through enough trial and error and it can be tempting to throw in the towel. Remind yourself of your own resilience by asking, How hard is my current situation compared to other challenges I’ve faced? When you look at the moment in the context of your overall life experience and that you’ve made it through hard times before, you open yourself to the motivation to keep at it.

2. Be curious.

Curiosity is a change superskill. When you think of a curious person, you probably don’t imagine them as stressed, pessimistic, and uninformed. More likely, you think they’re eager to learn how things work, to solve problems when they run into obstacles, and to seize the opportunities that change presents. Curiosity can also reduce stress by helping you think clearly about your emotional reaction to change.

Try it when:

  • Things aren’t going well. If you’re struggling with a change, start asking why — and keep asking until you find an answer. Are your expectations unreasonable? Are you uncomfortable with the uncertainty? Worried you’ll need to develop a new skill or improve a key working relationship?
  • Things are going well. Say your company’s new sales-tracking software is a success because it dramatically reduces the time you spend logging client interactions. But you also discover that the new software tracks customer interactions that the old software couldn’t. This is when to ask yourself, What’s possible now? What insights about your customers does it offer? How might you act on them?
  • Things seem calm. To prepare for the next change that’s just around the corner, tap into your curiosity and think about what your customers might need next or where industry trends are heading. You might also ask yourself, What can we be doing better? It doesn’t have to be a grand discovery — maybe just eliminating an unnecessary meeting. Innovation often comes from making small, incremental improvements that accumulate over time.

3. Zoom out to remind yourself why the change is important, and zoom in to figure out your next step.

To successfully navigate change you need to see both the big picture (e.g., the brighter future of a more efficient organization, a bigger market share) and what’s right in front of you (e.g., the day-to-day of creating a new sales presentation, learning new software). Like a sailor, you need to know your destination and then stay on course along the way.

Try it when:

  • You’re in the weeds on a change. Say your company decides to pitch a project to a potential new partner that could double the size of your business, and you get to write the proposal. But the proposal process reveals other issues you’d like to fix — your neglected filing system is a mess, your inbox is overflowing — wait, weren’t you supposed to be writing a proposal? It’s time to zoom out: What’s the ultimate goal? Win the project. To do that, you need to finish that proposal. Now zoom in: What’s the next step to take to finish the proposal?
  • The change needs to change. Imagine your company is making a strategic shift to encourage more face-to-face contact with customers, and you’re the events planner. Then a pandemic hits. The path the company was on becomes impossible. It’s time to zoom out: Why more face-to-face contact in the first place? Is there another way to achieve that goal, like increasing the frequency of your virtual connections with customers? Now zoom in: What’s the first step to take to create more virtual customer connections?

4. Fully commit — and recommit — to the change.

If you don’t commit yourself to a change because you’re worried it might fail, that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy by your giving less than your best (and then saying, “See, I knew this wouldn’t work”).

A key part of getting good at change is understanding that change is often hard and uncomfortable, and that you need to continually recommit to making it work — especially after you run into roadblocks. When you feel your commitment wavering, figure out why, then decide what to do about it.

Try it when:

  • The change begins. Even if you’re skeptical, the best way to test if a change is a good idea is to do your best to make it happen. You still ask questions to get clear on what the change is trying to achieve. Then you push to implement it the way you think it should be implemented and give an honest effort.
  • You feel like you haven’t made any progress. If you’ve been giving your best effort and the change still doesn’t seem to be working, it’s understandable to feel discouraged, but you might need to expand your definition of “progress.” All you’ve learned about what doesn’t work can help you find what does work. It’s a matter of making adjustments and trying again until you find a solution.
  • You’re doubting if the change is worth it. You may need to revisit the previous tactics in this article: Are you seeing only the bad sides of the change? Do you need to get curious about possible new approaches? Have you lost sight of the ultimate goals? Can you zoom in to figure out a next step to take? Asking questions like these can help you rediscover your motivation to make the change succeed.

If you’ve done everything to understand the change and still can’t commit, you might need to make a change for yourself. Maybe your organization is moving in a direction that doesn’t align with your career interests or values. The good news is that whatever change you’re facing, you’re now better equipped to choose the best path forward — for you.