Organizational Change and Personal Identity: Lessons from Uncle Ray

by Jean Marie Johnson

True story. Some years ago, my husband's Uncle Ray had a heart bypass operation. That "robust Ray" needed surgery at all came as quite a surprise to his wife, Belle, who swore that her husband of many years had the strength and energy of men half his age. After Ray's official retirement, he joined Belle in her antiques business, spending much of his time hauling his "finds" and spending many evenings restoring these great old pieces. That was the essence of Ray: always seeing and cultivating hidden potential.

But Ray's operation had left him without speech or the use of his limbs. At the convalescence home, Belle would feed this previously vibrant man as he stared at TV baseball and feebly attempted to communicate with Belle.

One evening, long after baseball season had ended, Belle took a stroll down the hall. As she passed the doorway of each identical room, she noticed that the last name of each patient was posted at the entrance: Smith, Jenkins, Polansky, and so on. The anonymity of surnames struck Belle as an injustice to the person behind the name. After all, one had to assume that, like Ray, each Smith, Jenkins and Polansky had an identity consisting of memories and experiences, joys, sorrows, relationships and accomplishments—not to mention personal quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Belle marched down to the head nurse's office and stated, "My Ray may be just another patient to you—a heart operation gone wrong—but my Ray IS A LEADER OF MEN AND AN ENTREPRENEUR." She went on to tell the befuddled nurse about Ray's background as a building supervisor responsible for the contributions of his team. She told her about Ray's boundless energy for rescuing, transforming, and selling old furniture. Belle went on to suggest that beside Ray's surname they should add: A LEADER OF MEN AND AN ENTREPRENEUR. And that beside each Smith, Jenkins and Polansky, a fitting description should be included so each patient could retain their identity and dignity.

I do not know if the head nurse ever acted on Belle's suggestion. But I do know that Belle's inspiration is with me each time I hear the stories of people in organizations who have been merged, acquired, restructured, right-sized and reengineered—people whose identity and worth to society have been thrown into upheaval, much as Uncle Ray's was with his illness. Each of these experiences requires that, in some way and to some degree, people rethink who and how they are in the new world.

When was the last time you faced a situation that required you to rethink who and how you are? I hope that you never experience a dramatically life-altering event like Uncle Ray. Ray lost the ability to speak, therefore we could not know what shifts he experienced in his sense of himself. However, at some points in our lives I can guarantee that we all will face big changes with which we must deal.

We can begin to deal with organizational change by acknowledging that when we merge, acquire, restructure, right-size and reengineer people, we are dealing with identity, with how people think about who and how they are. There is no getting around this. With an effective process and the right skills, we can support people in their very personal journey of transition, of making the psychological and emotional shifts needed to move forward. We can allow people to maintain some essence of who they are, while moving the organization forward with needed change.

While each organization is unique, key steps in the process include:

The Letting Go Stage: Engagement and story-telling—Something ends, and that something may be easy or difficult for us to deal with. Either way, it means that we experience some degree of loss.

I remember working with a team that was being transferred to a brand new building with all of the latest bells, whistles, and office comforts. What's not to like, you ask? Well, folks on this team really looked forward to the move. Yet, at the same time, the old building represented continuity (like rituals of humor about the funky elevator and the men's restroom that generated a regular supply of office lore). More than that, for some, the old building was the only building they had worked in. Many had started their careers there. Some of these folks felt a little intimidated about moving to the new building where they would now share their work day with people from other departments.

Working with people in this stage of change requires that we be mindful and respectful of each person's individual experience of loss. It requires that we honor the fact that some part of personal identity may be at risk here. By engaging people in conversations about what is over, we actually support their ability to let go and move forward.

The Neutral Zone: Defining a new vision/shared identity—No man's land. Limbo. Betwixt and between. Take your pick: you are in The Neutral Zone. What is over is over, what has changed has forever changed. That usually means that a person's sense of who and how they are is somewhere between what was and what is.

I remember facilitating a team session in which a high-level manager mentioned she had recently returned from maternity leave. I asked her how her adjustment to work was going. She responded in an interesting way. Instead of talking about work, specifically, she talked about how she saw herself. She said, "It's funny, because I used to describe myself as an accountant, and now I'm an accountant and a mom, and they're both important to me. So I am rethinking myself."

The neutral zone, the place between the old identity and the new: rethinking one's self. Working with people in the neutral zone requires that we make "rethinking one's self" an attractive opportunity. It means that we temper whatever urge we have to pull people into accepting what is new. In contrast, the most effective change processes actively engage people in shaping this new reality. When we engage people here, we honor identity and greatly enhance the likelihood that people will begin to see themselves as part of, and as benefiting from, the new reality.

The New Beginning: Aligning self and actions—Being fully here, in the present, wholeheartedly. That's the new beginning. The third stage in the psychological process of adjusting to change occurs when a person begins to identify with the new reality. It occurs when a person starts to see herself in a new way and aligns her actions accordingly.

I can't tell you how often a MAGIC® critic evolves into a MAGIC skeptic, only to emerge as a MAGIC advocate. Yet no matter what I do, I cannot make this happen. That shift occurs when a person begins to adopt a new understanding of service and her role in its delivery. It begins when she adopts new values, or sees her own values mirrored in MAGIC. It occurs when that same person starts to see herself in a new way, and then chooses her actions accordingly. As with Letting Go and the Neutral Zone, the most powerful action a manager can take is to mindfully and intentionally engage people as they embrace the New Beginning.

These are the beginning steps to allow for change to be beneficial to both the organization and to those people for whom we are responsible. Unlike Uncle Ray's traumatic change, the changes in our lives need not force us to lose the individual identities and journeys of our lives.

In our next issue, we'll explore this process in depth as we support people to not just accept but to embrace change.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
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