The Clues for Growth Are in the Complaints

Who Moved My Cheese by Dr. Spencer Johnson has been a best-selling book for years. The modern-day fable has helped many people accept 1) change is inevitable, 2) if you do not change aspects of your life they become stale and possibly toxic, and that 3) the sooner you can adapt and enjoy change, the more successful you will be.

THE TRUTH: An editor for a major New York publisher revealed to me that most business books, including Who Moved My Cheese, are not bought by people for their own growth, but to give to others so that they might accept the lessons taught. In other words, if someone gave you the Cheese book, they were hoping you would get off the stick and move on in your life, at work or at home. “No Whiners” is a common mantra in our complex, ever-changing success-focused society.

THE PROBLEM: There is value in resiliency and flexibility. However, there is also an inherent danger in hiding feelings of loss, betrayal, and fear as well as expecting others to ignore these feelings “for the sake of the team.”

We all know the damage that suppressed emotions can cause both to our health and to our relationships when they show up unexpectedly. It is unreasonable, even inhumane, to expect people to accept and be excited about change unless they see a payoff for them, and the payoff must be greater than the loss they perceive as a result of the change.

BRAIN TIP: Whether at work, in your family, or your friendships, when you tell someone that a decision has been made that will affect them in some way, you need to consider what they might perceive they will lose in the process. Remember, intentions and perceptions are often different. It doesn’t matter that you did not intend for the person to feel the loss. If they perceive that something is being taken away from them, then that is their reality.

Perceived loss may be tangible, such as the end or change in a job or relationship, a decrease in resources to successfully complete a job which translates to frustration and possible failure, and forced shifts in personal space and tasks.

We also react when we feel that a change will affect our safety, stability, identity, peace of mind, sense of direction, and receiving of love and respect. According to Robert Sapolsky in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, the greatest sources of stress include perceived loss of control, predictability (what will happen to me), support (people and resources), and hope.

If people fear a loss or perceive the loss to be true, they will react with anger, fear, disappointment, and even depression, causing resistance and an inability to “get on board” with the change. They may do what they have to do, but their actions will lack creativity and focused effort. Anger might inspire a spurt of energy, and fear might invoke productivity, but this type of energy will eventually burn out, leaving the person drained and often resentful.

COACHING FOR ACTION: So how do then do we best help people accept change without creating a culture of whining and complaining? Provide a space for the whining and complaining. Encourage the steam to be released in an organized setting. Help people identify the loss so they can move through it instead of suppress it.

One of the best experiences I had working with organizational change was in my first job at a psychiatric hospital. Whenever a change was decreed, the managers brought their departments together for a formal “bitch session.” Everyone was allowed, even encouraged, to talk about their anger and their fear. Their concerns were noted. Managers had a chance to explain the decisions more fully, and they were able to acknowledge any oversights that might have been made when the decisions were made. Sometimes these concerns did affect the ultimate actions. Often, the changes continued as planned. But the employees felt heard and acknowledged regardless, allowing them to more quickly adjust and move into the change.

Complaining is a sign that a person is feeling a loss. It is better to help them recognize the loss, and then coach them to accept it or regain it in another way, than to try to shut them down. Help them to see what they really want to ask for or to create for themselves in their life to deal with what they feel they are losing. The complaining will decrease. Compassion is the quickest route to action.
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