Why do people change?  It’s a simple question, with a plethora of possible answers, such as:

People change because it’s good for them… They change because they’re forced to… They change because it’s just time…  They change for the sake of variety…

Change is a part of life, right?  It’s inevitable.  We change when we need to change, because change is variety and variety is fun.

But is change really inevitable?   How is it that we trainers put together these fantastic sessions, with ample, juicy opportunities for insight and behavioral change, and our participants just don’t get with the program!

Clearly it has something to do with habit.  My dad, Walter, for example, was the ultimate creature of habit, about as resistant to change as they come.  For as long as I can remember, he wore the same shirts (striped, short-sleeved, baggy) and the same non-descript, blue pants.   A typical day for Dad would inevitably include a cup of instant coffee (Folgers) every morning with his eggs, another cup at lunch with his bagel (Noah’s) and cream cheese, and a glass of red wine (Gallo) every evening with his dinner – concluding with a scoop of ice cream (most likely vanilla) just before bed.   And this pattern continued until late into his life when he was diagnosed with diabetes and had to make some changes.

I propose that change — true change, that is, not mere cosmetic, style decisions — arises primarily from the dual partners of fear and pain. Whatever our situation, something is NOT working for us and it’s terrifying to imagine that this sorry state of affairs might continue –forever!

So why do people change jobs?  For exactly the same reason: because something about their work situation is painful or scary.   Perhaps it’s your boss, who is verbally abusive.   Or your duties, which are a huge mismatch with your skills/personality.  Or your pay, which will never let you realize the story you’ve laid out for your life (home, family, cushy retirement, etc.).  Whatever the explanation, you swap jobs because work is causing you pain and you’ve had it up to here.

And yet, even ongoing, low-level pain and fear may not be enough to inspire a change.  We human beings have this amazing capacity to put up with things, far beyond their expiration date.  Call it inertia, toleration, turning the other cheek…   “Okay sure, my job may stink, but trying something new is even scarier.  What if I make the jump and I fail?  That’s even more frightening!  I’ll just stay here for awhile and ponder my options”

Lasting change, it seems,requires post pain/fear AND a catalyzing event, something (or someone) that shocks you out of your rut and prompts you to new action.  In my dad’s case, it was a doctor telling him that he had to modify his eating habits if he wanted to keep on living. In my own case, it was a friend’s stern words.  You see, back in 1995, I was feeling pretty sick and tired of my going-nowhere job at a non-profit job agency in downtown San Francisco. It wasn’t just the pay, which at $11.75 an hour was barely paying the bills.   Rather, it was the monotony of my work: the same boring duties every day, without variation.  No writing, no speaking, no creativity…   Was this to be my lot in life, to the end of my days, never expressing my skills, my interests, my abilities?  How depressing!    But even then, did I do anything about it? Not for a really long time!   After all, my job was easy.  It was stable.  And best of all, I didn’t have to take it home with me.  What changed everything, however, was a catalytic conversation I had with an entrepreneur buddy of mine, Scott, who stated strongly that I was trapped in a holding pattern.   Looking at Scott’s life as a sole proprietor (environmental architect) — so full of energy, innovation and optimism – I couldn’t help but thinking, “Here I am, fed up with my life, dreading the future and hating myself.   I want what Scott has!”  And so I changed my lifestyle, and Dr. Clue was born.

Last month, I experienced a similar catalyzing event coming on the heels of an ongoing pain.  It was the day after my 50th birthday, and there I was, with my girlfriend, watching this great documentary called “Forks Over Knives”, a powerful exploration of the health benefits of a plant-strong, whole-foods, vegan lifestyle.    Now, I should explain that I’d been moving more towards vegetarianism for quite a while at this point, but not particularly for my health.  Rather, I was disgruntled with a larger, personal struggle – my own persistent battle of the bulge.   No matter what animal-based diet I tried, I just couldn’t shed the extra pounds I was carrying without practicing the dreaded “portion control” and starving myself, or so it seemed.    And then I watched “Forks Over Knives” which, to my surprise, suggested that I could pig out on “the right food” and the pounds would roll off of me.  To be sure, my ongoing situation (tight clothes) was causing me distress, but I needed the catalyst of the movie to spur me into action.   (Personal Note: I’ve been vegan for a month and a half now, have lost 10 pounds and feel fantastic).

So what does this all mean for us trainers and change-agents in the workplace?   Clearly we need to cue into the pain and fear of the people we serve.  But here’s the rub:  more often than not, the call for change in our organizations comes from on-high, far removed from our training participants.   Does this sound familiar?:

CEO:  “We need to do something about the lack of productivity in our office.  I’m getting grief from our stakeholders about our low
numbers.   What kind of training can we throw at the problem that will remedy this situation and get everyone off my back?” 

The problem with change initiatives that come plummeting down from the boardroom is that it’s often the initiators who are feeling the pain and fear and not, necessarily, the participants themselves.  Let’s say you’ve received a memo from your supervisor that you need to attend a department-wide course in conflict resolution.    Clearly, the mandate for this has come down from the suits upstairs, or your boss, or your boss’ boss.  But what’s in it for you?   What pain are you feeling?

This, I believe, is our biggest challenge as trainers:  getting buy in from participants who aren’t yet experiencing the aggravation and the terror for themselves.

Can we be the catalysts?   Perhaps. Much depends on our ability to help our trainees get in touch with their own feelings, their own disatisfactions, their own fear and pain.  What is THEIR story, and how does this training jive with what’s going on in THEIR lives.    There can be no second-hand change.   It has to visceral.  It has to be personal.  And it has to be right on time.