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Thriving in Hyperchange
A Case Study in Personal Stress Control

by Dr. Richard C.B. Earle, Ph.D.

"The only person who truly welcomes lots of changes is a baby with a full diaper."

Occasional changes, in work or personal life, are exhilarating and challenging. Past that point, rapid, unpredictable change is simply wearing and stressful, as reflected in an ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times".

The past 10 years have been, to say the least, "interesting" for North American corporations and their executives. In this period: nearly half of all companies were restructured; over 90,000 firms were acquired or merged; 240,000 companies were downsized; nearly half a million simply failed.

Even change has changed. In the good old days, we experienced and learned how to deal with "more" changes, and with "faster" changes. These hard won learnings, today, have limited value, since most here-and-now changes are no longer linear, i.e. moving in old familiar directions, only faster. Hence the term "hyperchange". Hyperchange is only secondarily about speed. It is mostly about novelty and unpredictability. Many of the changes demanding space on your desk, or in your boardroom have not been seen before. Certainly they have no off-the-shelf solutions.

For example, consider the hydro electric generating corporation which, until recently, was the largest design-and-build construction company in North America. Now, there is literally nothing to build. Or, perhaps, the 90 turn (some would say 180 ) faced by a digital switching telecommunications manufacturer when they discovered their market had become digitally saturated. No longer able to remain, first and foremost, a manufacturer, they are becoming leaders in software-based, value adding applications for the switching equipment they had already sold.

Most profound and widespread amongst the, until recently, unthinkable changes are those faced by employees, at all levels and of all professional stripes, who are now slowly realizing "we're all freelancers now". The tacit yet cherished belief in employment for life has been badly frayed, if not broken, in even the most staid of corporations.

Being a value adding freelancer where the corporate criteria defining what's valuable may change radically in six months' time is difficult... and, in the early stages, highly stressful. Yet, asFortune magazine recently reminded us, the concept of a "job" and "job security" are historically very recent creations. About 125 years ago, most of us didn't have "jobs"; we simply did whatever we had to to make a living for ourselves and our families.

Core Beliefs of Those Who Thrive in Hyperchange

Since the early 1980's, I've been asked to work with several dozen corporations, and thousands of employees dealing with hyperchange. Some thrive. Others just get weaker.

The watershed difference between those who grow stronger and those who barely survive in meeting the challenges of change is these four committed beliefs:

"Life is difficult." (one of Buddhism's "noble truths)

"If you would only accept how tough life is, you would find it much, much easier." (advice offered by the financier J.P. Morgan to his son)

"What doesn't kill you ONLY makes you stronger IF you learn from it."

"We can't wait for the storm [of change] to pass. We'll all have to learn to work in the rain." (P. Silas, Chairman of Phillips Petroleum)

Personal Best Practices for Thriving in Hyperchange

  1. Accept that rising stress is the totally normal response in the early stages of turbulent change. Difficulty concentrating, the inability to "shut down" on weekends, or being impatient, boiling over at a tiny irritant are biochemically inevitable (if you're a human). The high octane hormones that fuel the stress response are triggered automatically when we encounter too much uncertainty. Whether confronting an unusually silent spouse, or an ominously vague memo, we humans are programmed, when in doubt, to expect the worst. So don't be surprised that stress is providing you the energy to meet the challenge. In fact, expect it; allow for it. Only if the anger, the anxiety or the depressed mood persist is corrective action warranted.
  2. Carefully choose, and write down your answer to: Who, specifically, do I want to be (known as) when times are tough and turbulent? Flexibility in your self concept, in your expectations of yourself, is an asset, to a point. Beyond that, "going with the flow" and "keeping all options open" is a common trap, leaving many feeling uncentred and over- stressed in response to conflicting demands.
  3. Review and reaffirm the unique strengths you bring to your work, especially in the changing situation. In the face of firefighting and related time pressures, many of us lose sight of what our past successes have taught us about ourselves. Our sense of our own value can become limited to whichever of our talents allowed us to wrestle the most recent issue to the ground.
  4. Practice a simple method for breaking free of wheel spinning worry. Target one of your recurring worry situations and honestly answer these four questions. Can I change it? Will I change it? (How?) If the situation goes badly, what's the worst realistic effect on me? If it does go badly, what's my specific plan?
  5. Reacquaint yourself, in very concrete terms, with your work "satisfiers". For you as a unique person, what are the specific work experiences that might leave you, at the end of an admittedly tiring day, saying to yourself as you drive home, "That was a good day"? Write down your answers. Then plan for and take several simple actions to get on e of your satisfiers more frequently into your work day. My clients report that these and related steps have yielded 30 to 50% increases in their work satisfaction.

The health effects of becoming more actively self-satisfying are even more impressive. My research on stress and rate of aging indicates that high levels of self- generated satisfaction at work not only protect against, but may also reverse the corrosive effects of high levels of stress hormones. Stress levels are not the problem. Health, motivation, and marriages seem to suffer only when stress "investments" are not met by commensurately satisfying "returns".

Richard C.B. Earle, Ph.D. Dean, Academic Programs Selye-Toffler University
Box 665, Station "U" Toronto, Ontario Canada M8Z 5Y9
Tel (416) 237-1828 FAX (416) 237-9894