How to handle the anxiety that comes with making changes

I have a client who has been in an executive role in her organization for five years. Despite her best efforts the only thing that has grown is her level of frustration for the painfully obvious lack of growth. Because I have known her professionally for many many years I have noticed that although she thinks that she’s making an effort to lead change, the truth is that she continues to repeat different versions of the same activities year after year and is surprised that nothing has ever really changed.

A few months ago she asked me to help her take a look at what she was doing as a leader and see if I could help make her time more productive so that she could spend more time on the most important parts of her job. I happily agreed and the project to help her improve her results began.

After only a few days of talking to her, I began to see that there were things she was repeatedly doing that were ineffective and totally outside of her job description. I asked her about them and she explained that because of challenges with staffing, she had taken on many of the roles of running her organization but had never taken the tasks off her to-do list even once they had the staff in place to handle the tasks.

I immediately made her a list of twenty tasks that I noticed that she was doing that could be easily eliminated from her daily to-do list. At first she seemed thrilled and gave me permission to start building the systems to move those jobs away from her so that she could focus on the more impactful aspects of her job – and so I did. Item by item I began to whittle down her schedule expecting her to feel liberated; however, I began to notice a very different response.

Within days of me implementing the early pieces of the new plan I began to see her getting defensive and territorial. Where before she had given me a lot of ground to play in, I felt like now I was struggling for inches and tasks that she was complaining about days earlier she was now hoarding. Because I had seen this before, I knew that this behavior is very similar to that of someone quitting smoking – irritability, withdrawal and resentment of the changes.

Because this woman is an incredible person with amazing potential to be a life-changing leader, I could not stand by and watch her self-destruct. In a candid conversation we talked about how to handle the anxiety that comes with making changes.

  1. Remember why your’e doing it. Create a crystal clear picture of why you need to change and what the results will be if you don’t make a change.
  2. Expect that it’s going to hurt – maybe a little and maybe a lot. Do not expect making new habits to be easy – just ask anyone who has started an exercise program after years of inactivity. Not fun.
  3. Replace the old plan with a new plan. Do not just get rid of the old plan and leave a big gap – fill the hole with the new plan or else the hole will get full of meaningless activities.
  4. Take a breath. You may feel like you’re not up for the changes sometimes and that’s ok. When you feel the panic start, sit down and take a breath to get yourself together. Go back to step #1 (above).
  5. Get support. Do not embark on changes by yourself. Get a coach, build a peer network, find an accountability partner. Partner with someone who will help you keep moving forward even though most the time that it feels awkward and uncomfortable.

I am happy to report that she’s doing great and has been a lot more receptive to letting the old approach go while embracing the new course of action. She admits that sometimes she feels jangled because she is re-inventing herself as a leader but has a fresh sense of optimism for the future of her organization.

How do you handle change related anxiety?

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