Recognizing Change When We See It

By Next Step Partners
Partner, Next Step Partners

Have you ever experienced one of those moments when you know that what you’ve been doing will no longer work – that your team is self-destructing by having the same debilitating struggles, or that you are damaging your long-term health by attempting to maintain unmanageable levels of stress—but you are unable to map the way forward?

Have you ever known just what you needed to do to fix a situation, yet you find yourself standing at the edge of the cliff, afraid to step off because you are as vulnerable and wobbly as a child just learning to walk?

Have you ever started an important change, stepped out of your comfort zone, made sacrifices, only to realize that your colleagues haven’t even noticed, or that they seem to be doing all they can to prevent your success in achieving your goals?

Change: An ongoing process. Not a one time event.

Change is a process, not simply a decision. And because change involves altering entrenched habits and acquiring new skills, it’s usually uncomfortable. But whatever the nature of the change you are seeking – altering your organization’s culture, learning to communicate with your staff in new ways, or adopting healthier ways of eating – the actual stages of the change process are often predictable. The better you can recognize and anticipate them, the more likely that your change will be successful and that you won’t give up too soon.

There are many models of how change works. One that I find especially compelling is the “conscious competence” model, which has been used in leadership, psychology, and education for many decades. It has been attributed to Gordon Training International, and it also parallels Abraham Maslow’s Four Stages of Learning.

Stage 1

In the first stage you don’t see the problem – especially if you are part of the problem. You may be in denial that any change is needed at all. You certainly don’t have any idea how difficult and painful the required shift will be. You are unconsciously incompetent.

Stage 2

Once you become of aware of the need to change, perhaps through a crisis, or because you want to learn a new skill, you become acutely aware of your incompetence. I think of when I was learning French and proudly attempted to order an ice cream cone in Montreal, only to discover to my dismay that the person behind the counter didn’t understand me. You are in trial-and-error mode, taking one step forward and two steps back. At this second stage of change, you are consciously incompetent.

Stage 3

After much effort, experimentation, and practice, you become more competent and may even achieve a basic level of mastery. You find that the fifteen hours you’ve spent preparing your speech were well spent. You sound good! The audience likes your jokes! At this third stage of change you are consciously competent: you are practicing the new skill or behavior, but you still need to pay attention to it. You have not yet become fluent.

Stage 4

In this final stage, the new behavior has become second nature. You are able to speak the new language without translating every word in your mind first. You are able to drive the stick shift car naturally, and you can carry on a conversation at the same time. Once the new behavior becomes part of you, it may be hard to remember those first awkward steps. Other people see this new behavior as you. You have reached the stage of unconscious competence.

I have gone through these four phases many times and have seen clients go through them as well. The real work comes in the second phase, conscious incompetence. You know how you want to change, where you want to end up, and you also see how steep the hill is to get there. This stage brings the gravest doubts. You aren’t getting positive feedback from others, and you aren’t so sure yourself that you’ll achieve your goal.

One reason individuals and organizations engage coaches is that change requires perspective and ongoing support, and these are more likely to occur working in partnership with someone else than going it alone. Coaching can help you map the pathway between where you are and where you want to be. A coach can help you manage the difficult moments by encouraging you to allow yourself to be where you are in the process, rather than focusing solely on the end goal.

Understand where you are.

Knowing where you are in the change process helps you strengthen your effort, and communicating your process to others enables them to see the signs of change and to invest in your success.

Consider these questions:

  • If you are in a change process in some aspect of your life, whether personal or professional, which stage are you in?
  • If you are considering making a change, what can you do to keep yourself moving forward?
  • How can you overcome moments of discouragement?

As individuals, as leaders in organizations, and even as a nation, we need to be more cognizant of what change processes look like, and to assess where we are in those processes. To achieve change, we need to be able to recognize what it looks like while it’s happening.

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