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Drawing on the latest thinking from the Future of Work (FOW), agile, neuroscience and Human Centred Design (HCD).

Reframing the language of change


Small shifts in the words we use when we talk about change can make a big difference.

The way we communicate and engage with others, along with the way we absorb incremental change in our personal and professional lives, is all accelerating and continually being reshaped.

This makes it a good time to closely look at the words we use (or over-use) in conventional change management to realign our practice and language to the dynamic nature of the business environment. It’s time to nudge, reframe, and yes…challenge the language.

Here’s my top three:

1. Less about resistance, more about response

Are we hardwired to always resist change? It’s time to re-visit our assumptions that people will resist when devising our change plans and interventions. Thanks to insights from neuroscience, we know that as humans, we experience a range of responses, from resistance to support.

The key is to uncover why the same change can trigger these varied emotional responses. David Rock’s SCARF model eloquently explains the human response to change in terms of loss or gain. Loss equates to threat while gain equates to reward. For each element of SCARF - Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness - our responses to each change we experience are individual, and can be based on perception alone.

Let’s replace the word ‘resistance’ with ‘response’.

In an earlier LinkedIn article I wrote more on this and why it’s time to reframe our mindset about resistance.

2. Less about change fatigue, more about change fitness

We all know that change is relentless, continuous – that ‘new normal’ stuff.

We also know that organisations and leaders need to become more adaptive and build change resilience into their DNA. So is change fatigue still a thing? Or is it an outdated construct? Just saying…

Dr Jen Frahm explores this very thing, with some tips in her recent post to address the sentiment of fatigue:

  • Introduce change with context. Explain the ‘why’ and the ‘what’s in it for me’, particularly as part of a bigger change program underway.

  • Leverage the benefits of the retrospective.You could consider the retro as a ritual to mark endings, note lessons learned and welcome new beginnings. This re-energises a team with optimism and purpose.

Enough about change fatigue – the word ‘fatigue’ itself is already priming us for a state of being tired.

To build enduring change capability, let’s reframe our conversations to omit the word ‘fatigue’ from our vernacular!

Let’s replace the term ‘change fatigue with ‘change fitness’.

Dr Jen Frahm and I also covered the topic if change fatigue in this #brainpickers episode.

3. Less about hierarchy, more about influencers

Stakeholder engagement plans often focus on the business leaders who have authority to make or recommend decisions, and hold a position of positional power. These are the ‘senior stakeholders’ in our organisations we must engage with.

It’s not only the senior people or those directly involved in the change who we need to consider. Look for the influencers who have informal power through their association with key stakeholders, through their ability to influence.

In his book, the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell identifies these people with a ‘rare set of social gifts’ as connectors, mavens and salesmen. It’s their message, or ‘social mojo’ that can create the tipping point in influencing and spreading the message.

Let’s replace the word ‘senior stakeholders’ with ‘business influencers’.

On the topic of influencers, I recommend watching Jeremy Heimans’ TED talk on Understanding What New Power Looks Like, and checking out this related article in HBR. Jeremy talks about how traditional, hierarchical models of power are no longer hitting the mark in motivating people. Command and control is being replaced by connection and collaboration.

Traditional power, or old power, is challenged by digital, social networks, 24/7 connectivity and access to information. New power is challenging conventional communications which rely on cascading information from the top down, as the prescribed way to vertically trickle information through organisational layers.

There’s more about hidden influencers and how to find them in one of my earlier articles here

These are just three areas I’ve observed that indicate we need to consider the language we use when we communicate, engage, collaborate and deliver change.

I’m keen to hear about what else you’ve seen?

And what are the implications for when we lead and deliver change?

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