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No loss, no change: reflections on loss


In this guest blog, Frances Joseph reflects on loss, how it affects us, how it's integral to change, and how we can recognise and work with this in change initiatives.

Being involved in change – whether academically or operationally – means garnering an appreciation that moving to any new state implies leaving something behind. Given the amount of change we all experience all the time, it might be reasonable to assume that we become increasingly skilled at recognizing and managing that loss. Anecdotally, however, it seems more likely that however much we rationalise the inevitable, we can still find change extremely challenging. Even when change is planned or even actively sought (a house move, a new job) that can be the case, let alone when the change is undesirable or unforeseen (a bereavement, a redundancy).

Such loss seems even more potent and sometimes difficult to recognize and process when it is conflated with other emotions - anger, disappointment, resentment, and sometimes guilt or relief. It may be that the real challenge is the high degree of uncertainty, or unpredictability – blank ‘how’ and ‘when’ fields that would never pass muster on a half-decent change plan. Forewarned being forearmed, perhaps we can more proactively use the ‘in between’ times to gather and sharpen the tools that – intellectually - we already know we will need to deploy at some stage given the certainty of loss.

Consider for a moment the complex world of bereavement - the ultimate loss. Despite its inevitability, in many cultures we are not typically adept at navigating this kind of change. A friend recently confided that it took over 10 years before she could even look at her beloved grandmother’s jewellery, after her death. It is so often devastating, as though we have held on to an adolescent sense of immortality. How might we better prepare for and process deeply-felt loss, and navigate the change ‘well’?

Alongside the obvious ‘seize the day’ and gratitude practice, an analogy that has resonated widely is the ‘ball in the box’ which I paraphrase here with the kind permission of Lauren Herschel, who was offered this in the context of a family bereavement, though it is interesting to consider it in the context of other emotional change:

  • Your loss resembles a ball contained in a box, which also has a ‘pain’ trigger

  • In the beginning the ball is huge, and you can’t move the box without hitting the trigger constantly

  • Generally, the size of the ball diminishes over time - but it can also reinflate without warning. It hits the trigger less often, but the pattern can be random, and the response might feel as potent as ever.

  • In some cases, the ball never really goes away. However, it might trigger the response less, affording you more recovery time

Blending Lauren's ‘ball in the box’ with the work of William Bridges, and bereavement specialist J William Worden, I offer these suggestions for leading others through major change and the loss inevitably associated with it:

  1. Assume - even plan for - a sense loss as part of change, which for some may be more emotional that you expect. This doesn’t mean that you need to shine a spotlight on it (“look how difficult and upsetting this might be!”), but the opposite is similarly unhelpful. Enthusiastic sponsors might gloss over or ignore the ‘loss’ element in their intent to build engagement for the bright new prospect.

  2. Consider what would constitute an ‘enduring connection’ to what is lost, so that you can move forward without letting go altogether. Bridges talks of ‘honouring the past’. In a business context, that might mean recognising and celebrating that which has been achieved with a former way of working / leader / structure / system.

  3. Notice that adjusting to a major personal or professional change can be an unpredictable and seemingly irrational, process - not necessarily tidy or linear. It might just be a bit more ‘ball in the box’ and less a neat Kubler-Ross curve. Listening carefully to your audience will equip you to plan interventions and support to smooth the transition.

Above all, if a lifetime - or a career span – will certainly include a series of losses as well as gains, consider them deliberately and with purpose. Without becoming maudlin we can learn a great deal from examining our past losses and reactions to them - what we assumed to be true, the impact it had - and use that experience constructively tomanage future (inevitable) change. Change Management is fundamentally about people, and people are on multiple change journeys all of the time in life and at work – many of which you can’t see. Learning to acknowledge and respect losses of all shapes and sizes is a skill worth mastering.

Frances Joseph, currently working on coaching and behaviour change projects in the Global People team at The Body Shop, is an experienced, wise and insightful coach and change leader. She brings energy and skill to diversity and inclusion in corporate contexts, to supporting women managers and aspiring managers, and to her own continuing learning. Frances has a particular fondness for poetic French, peanut butter and cheese (tho not necessarily together), and play.

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