Is your history preventing your future? How to help people move past pain to embrace change.

Despite all the wonderful aspects of change touted in my posts, not everyone loves change. Not all change is healthy or good. A history of bad experiences and violated trust makes it hard to move forward. People have been hurt. Damage has been done.

As the United Kingdom seeks to get reunited after elections, I took note of one of PM Boris Johnson’s opening statements: “Let the healing begin.” Divisions have run deep and progression is impossible when people are pulling in different directions.

It’s not uncommon for me to uncover similar significant pain in organizations. I remember a client telling me that a previous project had seen several people wind up on short term disability, burned out and broken. This was relayed to me as somewhat humorous. It isn’t.

Bad projects and bad leaders become part of the corporate memory and leave lasting impressions. They make people wary of getting engaged. People seek safety in stability, remaining closed to change.

Some people cannot move forward until they process the past.

So what do we do? There is no simple answer as every situation is different, but here are some tips.

1. Ask a third party to help.

It is very difficult for internal players to get completely honest answers from employees because of fear. An independent party who can empathize and say “I’ve been there” stands the best chance of opening insightful dialogue.

2. Meet in a safe space.

Meet in small groups that allow individuals to support one another in describing what has caused pain and division. Pick a location away from other activities with blinds that close.

3. Shut up and listen.

I’ve had groups share really tough, intense experiences that included ‘facts’ which I knew were completely wrong. Never contradict people who are opening up. Just listen and acknowledge. There will be time for clarification later.

4. Feed it back.

Let them know you heard them. Highlight key points and any requests they have made that will move them towards reconciliation. If they haven’t offered any, then ask what will help them restore what was lost.

5. Act.

Do what you need to do to makes things right. This is a matter of credibility, so speed is important.

It’s convenient for us to hope people will eventually ‘get it’ and fall in line with change, but some cannot do that on their own. When people are not engaging, dig in and find out what’s holding them back. You might be the one to unlock a torrent of incredible performance!

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Jeff Skipper
Jeff Skipper is an expert in accelerating change. Clients such as Shell, Goldman Sachs and The Salvation Army have engaged him to achieve dramatic results during strategic transformation by wrapping complex change in motivating mission. He has been quoted in Fast Company, Forbes and HP’s enterprise.nxt. Jeff holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and is a Certified Change Management Professional.