Why We Fear What We Crave

I’m fascinated with paradoxes. 

With the idea that two seemingly contradictory things can both be true at the same time. 

And also with the idea that it is in understanding what makes them both true that great insight is revealed; how two opposing elements together form an integrated unity that opens us up to deeper understanding.

I read somewhere (and jotted it down uncited) that, “scholars have defined paradox as tensions that are contradictory, interdependent, and persistent, noting their dynamic, everchanging, cyclical nature”.

I immediately wrote down tensions that are contradictory, interdependent, and persistent.

I thought if I was a painter or if I was a sculptor, heh, but then again, no - I might be drawn to create a work exploring this contradiction of interdependent and persistent tensions.

Instead, though, I am a reader and a writer, and a prolific note-taker, so I am on this journey of exploring the concept of paradoxes in my own way. 

The one that has me currently the most fascinated is the Paradox of Change. As my great friend Ilyse put it, Why We Fear What We Crave.

Navigating, managing and leading change in corporate settings has been the theme of my professional career so far, without me knowing or seeing it until later. 

My career began at advertising agencies where 'figure out how to manage this change' became my unofficial job title. At one agency, the task was culturally merging a small creative and fiercely independent agency with the Vancouver outpost of a staid and global behemoth. At the next agency, I was the VP, General Manager of the Vancouver branch office of another global communications agency with offices in over 120 countries. This time they wanted the Vancouver office to become more like a small creative, and fiercely independent office within their network. 

In both these cases, change happened, but it was not without collateral damage. Dominating the advertising agency business is leadership that Daniel Goleman refers to as the Coercive Style. Describing this style, Goleman writes, "the CEO created a reign of terror, bullying and demeaning his executives, roaring his displeasure at the slightest misstep . . . The CEO's direct reports, frightened by his tendency to blame the bearer of bad news, stopped bringing him any news at all". In reading Goleman's words, I felt he had walked in my shoes. 

Coupled with the Pacesetting Style that characterized the advertising industry and described by Goleman as when "the leader sets extremely high-performance standards and exemplifies them himself", I found an accurate description of my experience. Goleman's description of the Pacesetting Leader continues to say, "He is obsessive about doing things better and faster, and he asks the same of everyone around him." It was like looking in a mirror.

My advertising agency career evolved into consultancy, explicitly working with CEOs and their leadership teams on articulating vision, missions and values and developing and communicating internal brand communications plans. Five years ago, I began working with a large company, where I supported the CEO on all executive communication and worked cross-functionally with the People + Culture team and Transformation Office to lead and develop brand purpose, vision, strategic priorities and key messages for the cultural transformation to align 15,000+ staff. So much easier said than done. I learned how resistance to change very quickly creates toxic cultures. 

For the past two years, I have again been involved in several change initiatives and in two of these instances changing the way things have been done for 20+ years.

All three change initiatives involved considerable consultation with employees. And again, I was confronted with what happens to a culture when people experience resistance to change; how chasms between 'us' and 'them' are created and groups of people label other groups as 'team no change.' 

During this time, fewer words rang true for me than the words of Brene Brown that a colleague shared with me, "The greatest shame trigger at work is the threat of being irrelevant. And in the midst of change, whether it's a merger and acquisition, digital transformation, or reductions, in the midst of change people get very scared, they double down, and irrelevance almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for them because instead of leaning in and learning what's new and how are we changing, they get territorial, shut down, ‘This is bullshit, this is not the way we've always done it.’” 

Gestalt's Theory of Change states that people change by becoming more fully themselves, not by trying to make themselves be something or someone they are not: 'Change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. This thinking explores the idea that people change when they give up trying or struggling to be what they would like to become; when they allow themselves to be currently what they are now at this moment in time.

As I dig and explore I’m curious if that is also where the fear comes from. In “allowing ourselves to be currently what we are now at this moment in time”. If that isn’t an enormous leap of faith into vulnerability I don’t know what is.

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