Do You Dread, Tolerate, or Embrace Change?

James L. McQuivey
Vice President, Principal Analyst
February 17, 2017

Last November I sat down with Chevrolet CMO Tim Mahoney on stage at Forrester's Age of the Customer summit. We had a wide-ranging talk about disruption, change, and what Chevy executives are doing to anticipate and deal with that change. I just published a summary that conversation, what I might call Mahoney's top recommendations for CMOs in 2017. In that short summary, I quoted Mahoney and then added what follows:

"Our CEO talks a lot about how in the next five years, it's going to change more than it has in the last 100 years when you think about what's going on with car sharing, ridesharing, autonomous. It's a really interesting time to be in an industry that's over 100 years old. Think about your car: Where is it now? It's parked. Next to your home, it's the second-most important investment people make. It's parked 94% of the time. Many younger people are starting to ask, why do I even need a car?" – Tim Mahoney

General Motors is not alone in this ominous premonition. A full 42% of companies we surveyed recently in the US, Germany, and the UK agree that "in the next five years, my organization will have significantly altered its product and/or services.

I was impressed to hear the CMO of a very traditional manufacturer talk like that. In my career as a prophet of impending disruption I've worked with countless executives. They prefer to deny that their industry is in peril. It can't happen, won't happen, blah, blah, blah. Until it is happening. But even then, rather than acquiesce to the coming change and begin the tough process of adaptation, they often just change their protests to be more specific, sometimes oddly so. "Uber is illegal!" one executive shouted at a private conference where I was speaking, using the now-famous disruptor as a case study. As if that assertion could stop the fintech revolution that was actually threatening his particular business.

Argue all you want about which changes will happen and how swiftly they'll happen, but either way you're spending energy on the wrong topic: How do we convince ourselves we don't have to change? instead of How do we begin to change?

In my most personal encounters with executives, in their offices, at dinner after a day-long workshop or other places where they are willing to open the kimono a bit, I can see how important it is to have the personal ability to not just tolerate change, but to seek it. Because "putting up" with change might have worked when radical change only occurred once a decade. But to face change continuously as we do today requires that you learn to enjoy it.

In psychology we have a complex set of interrelated concepts that get at whether you dread, tolerate, or embrace change: 

  • Ambiguity tolerance (uncertainty tolerance). This describes how comfortable you are when there isn't a clear answer or a single solution to a problem, it also includes the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time and still "retain the ability to function," as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said. Obviously, change requires some ability to tolerate the uncertainty of things yet to come.
  • Variety seeking. This is a trait that has oft been maligned as pathological. In the 1960s, things seemed good, prosperity was on the rise, careers were long-lived; why would someone who was emotionally healthy itch for variety? In our modern sociological and market setting, however, variety is the norm. People can't just run a 10K, they have to do a Spartan Race through mud, over walls of ice, and under electrified wires. The secret is that biologically speaking, we are programmed to seek variety and change, and in our digitally disrupted age, we get more than our fill of it. This leads to consumer hyperadoption, but it also stimulates business innovation.
  • Personal efficacy. Finally, we know that one's beliefs about their personal utility in a potentially ambiguous future circumstance is a tremendous predictor of their ability to not only weather future storms but to lead others through the storms as well. Personal efficacy is related to emotional intelligence and it's also contagious: When you believe the people around you are more efficacious, you are likely to act in ways that bolster their sense of efficacy (the best leaders do this well, as I have written before).

Notice that I did not list "optimism" here. Because you don't have to be a Pollyanna to effectively embrace change. In fact, in management research, it has been demonstrated that the leaders best prepared for change are those who can make a rational assessment of their company's ability to navigate the needed change. That requires cool cynicism, not blind optimism. When that cynicism is paired with ambiguity tolerance, a variety-seeking personality, and a sense of personal efficacy, you get the ideal personal psychology for a leader today.

It's the kind of leadership I sensed in Tim Mahoney and that he certainly lauded in GM's CEO, Mary Barra. I didn't get the chance to perform a barrage of tests on Tim, so I can't say this conclusively, but from my interview with him, I got the sense that: he doesn't have to have the answers to move forward, he's willing to look to a variety of sources for solutions, and that he's pretty confident he can play a useful role in whatever comes next. 

How about you? Do you dread change, merely tolerate it, or seek and embrace it? Think over recent decisions you have made: did you demonstrate tolerance for uncertainty, were you open to a variety of possible options and answers, and were you able to see yourself playing a role in bringing your team to the destination that change requires? If not, you know what you need to work on next round. Because there will always be a next round.

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James McQuivey, Ph.D., is a vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester. He is also the author of the book, Digital Disruption.

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