Some interesting email spam recently landed in my inbox...well, interesting for someone involved in change management. The email had dramatic pictures of bald eagles, and its message was about what eagles can teach us about change. It claimed that a bald eagle can live to be 70 years old—a bit over twice its average life span—by going through a “rebirth.” This rebirth involves dire, difficult, and distressing physical actions—any single one of which would likely kill the bird. The conclusion of the spam was that the eagle has a lesson for all of us: to move forward, and make a significant change, we must take painful steps to rid ourselves of the past.
According to Snopes.com, this email has been circulating for more than five years.Its longevity indicates that its message has resonance with people’s beliefs about what is required to make a change. Two ideas from the email immediately popped out at me. The first is unreasonable expectations. None of the described arduous physical manipulation could double an eagle’s life span. The second is the drastic steps required to change. The message is clear: going from the current state to the new state is difficult and painful.
Let’s take a closer look at expectations. Having reasonable, well-defined expectations from a change initiative is a crucial beginning. To be engaged, people need a clear sense of what the end-state looks like. They deserve to know how it will affect them and their positions and if the time frame for implementation is realistic. To gain buy-in or to justify costs, it is not unusual to exaggerate benefits and expectations from an initiative. However, this carries a risk. It is a fact that requirements and expectations can change along the implementation path. It is much easier for people to adjust course, if they have confidence in the change leadership to convey reliable and honest information throughout the change process. When unrealistic expectations are not met, it causes cynicism and undermines the trust needed to implement a new initiative.
The second message of the eagle’s “transformation” was that it was impossible without extreme pain. There is no question that moving away from the status quo can be unsettling, and when a change is imposed upon people, it can be difficult. Leaders who make sure employees affected by the change initiative understand the need for it, and are involved in its planning and implementation can reduce this difficulty. Being empowered to find solutions to the inevitable bumps in implementation engages employees and engenders commitment. Providing platforms for employees to share their experiences with the initiative leverages their knowledge. Stifling resistance is a self-inflicted handicap—since resisters can be the best source of information about problems, especially with implementation.
Maybe the longevity of an email, which portrayed change as about unrealistic expectations and painful transitions, is due to its striking pictures of a magnificent bird. However, more likely its longevity is because people are inclined to believe that change is inevitably painful and arduous. The spam email illustrates the need to take a closer look at people’s beliefs about what is required to implement significant change.