posted by Dilip on June 13, 2018

Pain (any pain–emotional, physical, mental) has a message. The information it has about our life can be remarkably specific, but it usually falls into one of two categories: ‘We would be more alive if we did more of this,’ and, ‘Life would be more lovely if we did less of that.’ Once we get the pain’s message, and follow its advice, the pain goes away.” – Peter McWilliams


Be the change you wish to see in the world” –Mahatma Gandhi

If you think change is hard, try becoming irrelevant.” –Tom Peters


These three quotes are at the heart of how we should manage change—in our careers and in our life. The reason for picking this topic for my blog today is the reason for my existence as a career and life coach: Most of those who come to me and stay as my clients want to change something, often outside of themselves. It may be their boss, colleagues, company, even their friends, or their spouse. In extreme cases where they cannot change the reason for their ambient pain or to make their life “more lovely,” they seek my advice on how to run away from their source of discomfort or even discomfiture with the hope that what their new ambient will give them would make them both more alive and make their life more lovely!

Nothing could be further from the truth. Running away from your source of pain merely changes your circumstances without changing the root-cause of the pain. Sooner or later the same or similar pain will return, sometimes many fold and you would be less prepared to deal with it than you thought.

Why does this happen?

The answer to this question lies in the quotes by Gandhi and Peters.

One of the daunting challenges my clients face in dealing with their own ambient forces at work is how they can change each in a gang of the miscreants responsible for their ongoing plight that vitiates their work and suck the joy out of their work-life: A peer who preempts their idea in an important meeting, even before they are able to finish articulating their full thought, and then hijacking away the credit for themselves for proposing it; the boss who reneges on her promise to promote you because of your significant contributions to her success under the pretext that the current headcount does not allow for new promotion; a sneaky colleague, standing behind your chair, steals your conceit by glancing over your computer screen, as he is talking to you and promotes that idea as his own before you realize what just happened; just to name a few.

So, if you cannot change the obviously unfair—even unjust—at times, what is even the point continuing in such a perfidious or hostile environment? Why not quit and “show” them your grievance and go on to another place where such behavior is not normal?

The problem with this mindset is that there is no place where this behavior is an outlier; it is normal anywhere humans work collectively and are all trying to get ahead by doing whatever is necessary and by pushing the limits of the system in which they participate. The only saving grace is that in some organizations such systems are less inimical to merit-worthy employees and the managers who manage them are more enlightened in their approach to leading their flock. Getting in such organizations is often difficult because everyone wants to work there!

So, what is one to do, not just to labor through your career for a paycheck, but to also have some control over your actions and outcomes that are more equitable and less iniquitous—even for a modicum of joy doing it? The answer to this question lies in the title of this blog; to reprise, change yourself first before you blame others for your woes!

Some ways you can do this:

  1. Identify the source of most pain: If you are facing pain from a variety of forces, don’t be overwhelmed by blaming the whole system. Identify the top one or three (max.) sources of grief snuffing out any joy in you work. Make an audit of how your pain from one source in each of the many episodes stretched your already burdened tolerance. Then figure out what interactions with this person will ameliorate that pain and what you need to do to behave in ways that allows this person to see how your new behavior is more in alignment with what benefits them by the changes you have made in your routine. Don’t do anything yet, as this is the change that you are going to manage when you are ready, because you are not quite ready yet until you also do the #2, below.
  2. Now identify the source of your least pain: On the other side of the spectrum of your pain find those that merely annoy you, but not quite enough to make your life downright unlivable. There are people in this category in abundance, so getting a handle on this side of your source of “pain” must be a breeze. Alternatively, from #1 above, identify what aspects of their interactions with you can be labeled as annoying or perverse, but that can be ignored if that same person did not annoy you with the bigger offense they routinely commit to snuff the joy out of your work life.
  3. Start with those that cause least pain: Once you have identified the two ends of your pain spectrum, either with different people or with the same person, and who are responsible for each side of it, start your change experiment:

    Identify from the group that merely annoys you (those causing you least pain) and see what you need to convey to this person if that person is amiable and someone you feel comfortable talking about this issue. Before going to this person ask yourself what you are going to change to make this person benefit from that change. Talk it over and learn how to have this conversation, so that they do not recoil to make it worse for you. If you pick the same person where you need to change something that belongs in category #1, but whose interactions can be labeled as merely annoying (#2 category) then figure out how you can manage your actions or a dialog with this person so that the small change you are going to make in your interactions with them will benefit them more than they do you (see the Object Lesson below).

    If they see the benefit in the way you are changing for them they will see your needs in a different light and will make a change in their own interactions with you to make their behavior less offensive. So, what has happened here is that the interaction between the two of you has changed as a result of the changes you made to benefit this person. Once you are satisfied with your outcome you’ve succeeded in making the necessary change. Remember, you’ve changed the interaction and not the person that annoyed you. Now you are less annoyed. The benefit to you of the “incremental” change strategy is that you have now earned their trust in how you can be their ally, to alleviate their “pain” and to give them the benefit of your actions (again, read the Object Lesson below to see how this works)

  4. Inoculate/Immunize: Once you learn how to inoculate or immunize against such offending colleagues (or others) you have built an antidote to deal with it even with those who commit greater offenses against you and who cause you greater pain. The idea behind starting small, even with the person who greatly offends you, and winning the battle is to prepare yourself for bigger remedies that, if ignored, chip away at deriving any joy in your work and that create unpleasant—even toxic—work environment. You are doing this for the larger benefit of your work group, team, and the organization—even your customers.
  5. Get increasingly more assertive: Once you have conquered this battle of changing your interactions with others around you, you now have the ability to assert yourself in increasingly more purposeful ways to give others what they want by changing your interactions with them. Although they may not themselves change, the new dynamic that you have artfully and deliberately created benefits their everyday existence and that is good enough for you to reap the benefit of the change you made in your dealings with them. If all of this is too theoretical and difficult to grasp, read through the Object Lesson below and see if that makes for a good model for you to emulate:

Object Lesson in change:

A senior-level client had a new job focused on developing alliances as a part of her business development charter. Prior to her arrival a month back her VP was dealing with one of the key partners and was singularly responsible for building a highly toxic and inimical “alliance” as a result of his poor relationship skills. This was further exacerbated by some personalities and business demands they placed on that alliance, which the VP resisted. When my client started building new relationships with that partner she soon realized that to undo the damage done to this relationship and to get that partner fully performing her boss had to be taken out of that relationship.

As my client was onboarding the VP told her that any and all interactions with that partner must be through him, despite the fact that she now owned that partner as a part of her job. So, rather than dealing with the big problem created by this VP in his ongoing relationships with this partner (category #1 problem), my client quickly identified many #2-level impediments that were easy wins for her to take on. So, rather than asking for the VP’s permission she gradually started addressing some #2 issues plaguing this partner and then told the VP that because of expediency/his being on a trip she decided to take care of urgent (#2) issues and keep the partner progress on track.

Once the VP saw that she was handling this well and the partnership was on track for delivering some of the objectives, the VP slowly started disengaging from everyday partner interactions and gave my clients increasingly more latitude in their interactions. Within the first year the partnership flourished and started delivering results well beyond the objectives set by the VP and he took credit for the success of this partnership, which was in the tank as my client on-boarded in her new job. My client did not mind, as she was now in full control of that improving relationship.

So, what happened here was that my client was able to change the dynamic without changing her boss and succeed in making a win-win for both sides. She now enjoys her job and feels more in control of her work; the VP has not changed his approach to dealing with other partners, but that is no longer my client’s problem.

Coming back full circle on how you can change yourself without changing others to get the results you want is apparent from this “use case,” and I hope that you can apply the same logic in managing the change that you want, without taking on the impossible task of changing others.

Good luck!