Last week, change management professionals from around the globe converged on Dallas, TX, for the Association Change Management Professionals’ annual global conference: Change Management 2016. We shared insights, lessons learned and a red-hot dance floor with our change colleagues. There is so much innovation within our own field, and I was energized and inspired by what is happening in the change management community.

Perhaps my biggest takeaways, however, came from people whose work is not directly change management but is adjacent and relevant to our field. The opening and closing keynotes not only set the tone for a fantastic conference but also challenged me personally and professionally.

Shawn Achor: Outliers and Positivity

Shawn Achor is a positive psychology expert who puts serious science behind a topic that, like change management, could easily be written off as fluff (check out his TED Talk!). I respect anyone who can incorporate unicorns into a keynote without losing a shred of professional credibility.

Why we should study outliers

Black Sheep OutlierShawn talked about outliers and how in economics and psychology we tend to focus on the average population and explain away the outliers (also known as “weirdos”). Conversely, Shawn makes his living studying outliers: the people who are happier and have higher performance than the general population. He looks at what these outliers do differently in hopes that the average person can raise their own level of happiness and performance. Shawn's work caused me to think: “who are the positive outliers in change?”

Our outliers are early adopters and the most adaptable, resilient people in our organizations. We focus so much energy on the general population in a change, and early adopters can easily be written off as one less group to worry about. What would happen if, instead, we really studied these outliers and then leveraged our learnings (and their influence) to raise the adaptability of the general population?

The impact of positivity in the workplace

Shawn also explained that positive people are generally more resilient and less prone to burnout and turnover. Resilience and burnout and turnover, oh my! Talk about speaking a change professional’s language. Shawn described the scientifically proven ways to instill positivity in people, and how as a result people will start to scan their environment for opportunities rather than threats.

What would the implications be if the people in our organizations had a proclivity for spotting opportunities instead of threats? Could instilling a culture of positivity be a tide that raises all boats when it comes to change?

Brené Brown: Vulnerability and Relevance

If you have never heard of Brené Brown, I hereby give you permission to stop reading this blog and go read one of hers immediately. Brené is a researcher and author on the topics of shame, vulnerability, courage and authenticity. To say I’m a fan is an understatement, and if you watch the recording of the keynote you’ll probably see me bouncing with excitement in the front row. I am not ashamed.

Allowing vulnerability back into change

Brené talked about vulnerability and how we will go to great measures to avoid vulnerability and its related fear of weakness. I reflected on how true that can be in times of change. We try to squeeze every ounce of vulnerability out of a change through our confident sponsorship and carefully cascaded key messages. Brené pointed out that, while we often associate vulnerability with negative emotions and experiences, vulnerability is also the birthplace of creativity, innovation and… change.

Brene Brown - Vulnerability and Change QuoteChange is inherently vulnerable. There are almost always unknowns and risks. Are we really serving people by not allowing any vulnerability into how we talk about change? As a leader, do I serve my people by never letting them know that I don’t have all the answers and that I’m worried too? Is there space in change management to recognize and honor the vulnerability that comes along with change?

Acknowledging the fear of not being relevant

Another topic of Brené Brown’s work is shame: the things that make us feel like we’re not enough. It is tempting to say shame has no place in a professional setting, but that is simply not the case. Brené shared that the number one shame trigger in the workplace is the fear of not being relevant. People want to know that their contributions matter.

I can only imagine how many times a change has caused someone to fear for their relevance – that in the future state their contributions will no longer be meaningful. In change management we assess the impact of a change on peoples’ processes and roles and behaviors. What would happen if we asked: could this change make this person fear for their relevance? Can we remove this trigger for the people impacted by this change? How can we, as change professionals, leverage this knowledge that fear of relevance is the greatest trigger of shame in our organizations?

My Takeaways

Gary Vansuch, Director of Process Improvement for the Colorado Department of Transportation, spoke at this year’s Prosci all-hands meeting in January. He predicted that the next innovations in change management will come from our discipline rubbing up against other disciplines. This year’s ACMP conference was proof that critical thinking and challenging questions can come from thought leaders outside of change management.

These questions push us, as change professionals, to think differently about our work. I think it’s safe to say that when Change Management 2017 rolls around, I’ll still be unpacking these lessons learned. What were your takeaways from Change Management 2016?

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Written by
Susie Taylor
Susie Taylor

Susie Taylor is a passionate advocate of personal and organizational change. As a Change Advisor for Prosci, she partners with organizations to implement change management strategies that drive adoption and results while fostering a positive employee experience. She has a master's degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, where she has also served as an instructor.