Oftentimes life throws us curved balls… we are walking down a path and it feels like things are going steadily. It may not be the perfect path, but we know it; we have come to understand it and we are living it. Then suddenly, life throws a curved ball which completely throws us off balance – a failed exam, an unplanned pregnancy, the death of a loved one, an unexpected re-organisation at work, a failed business etc.
Throwing (someone) a curved ball is an idiom which indicates an unexpected obstacle, difficulty or unpleasant incidence that a person has to deal with. The term comes from the baseball game, where a pitcher (the person throwing the ball) tries to fool the batter (the person hitting the ball) by throwing the ball with sufficient spin such that it veers from its expected path and travels along a curve instead of the usual straight line path. This makes it much more difficult for the batter to guess the path of the approaching ball and reduces the chance of hitting it.
When managing change in the corporate world, managers refer to a model called the Change curve which was developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s. The model was used to explain the grieving process and is now widely used to understand and manage employee’s reaction to significant change or upheaval in both the business world and their personal lives.
Although the Change Curve has been adapted over time, the main emotions it describes have remained mostly consistent. These are: shock, denial, anger, depression, acceptance and integration. There are parallels between the Change curve emotions and the potential batters reaction to a curved ball.
1. Shock /Denial
The initial and natural reaction to unplanned change is shock. Whilst in this state, it is as though time stands still. The baseball batter sees a curved ball approaching could choose to give up and throw their arms up in air.
The state of shock usually leads to denial. The affected person wants to continue in the status quo. The batter takes their usual stance as though nothing is happening. Despite seeing a curved ball, they hope the ball would approach in a way they are used to.
Whilst a legitimate reaction, it is important to move out of this state. To help "move-on" one must consciously find out more about this change; assess the situation, what is happening and why. This information helps to understand the reality that change is indeed happening.
2. Anger/ Fear and Depression
After reality sets in, many may start to feel angry, concerned, resentment or fear. This usually result in them actively or passively trying to resist the change. This is akin to a baseball batter standing in the way of the ball until it whacks them in the face and knocks them out. Alternatively, they could turn the other way and run for fear of being hit.
Again, anger and fear are valid emotions, but dwelling too long in this state could make the long-term impact of this change more damaging than it needs to be. These are the lowest points of the curve for a reason. It is the individual’s lowest moment emotionally and therefore their performance would be at its lowest. Not only is the individual not performing, they are possibly taking steps to hinder progress.
To “move on” from this state, one needs to make a conscious decision to use your the curved ball.
Maybe you've just been made redundant at work. You are angry because of the level of personal sacrifices you've made for your employer. But you've been given a payout. It is time to stop being angry and think about how you would use your curved ball...the payout and the free time that you now have.
As the saying goes, if life throws you lemons, don't get sour, make lemonade.
Now we are accepting that this change is happening. The baseball batter is adjusting their position; they watch the ball approaching and prepare for the new direction of the ball.
Part of acceptance involves preparing yourself and adjusting. A change in your workplace may mean that you need to get retrained. A failed exam may mean changing career paths etc. Whatever change means in your specific circumstance, you also need to change as part of accepting it.
In this stage, the individual has fully accepted and embraced the change. They can see the future. Even if there are not fully equipped for it, but they are acting positively and are optimistic. The baseball batter, seeing the curved ball approach, makes a good effort to hit it.
Once you are committed to that change, it is important to keep focussing on the future rather than looking back into the past.
If you are a people manager introducing change in your organisation, you need to help employees through this process. Empathy and communication are key. Try to understand their emotions, don’t dismiss how they feel. This would only result in extending their stay in a negative state or will push them back in the change curve which could result in you losing valuable employees that you really want to keep.
Sometimes change happens to us outside the work environment and there is no manager to empathise with us. We still need to move out of denial into productivity. The biggest advice is in deciding to take hold of that curved ball and using it. Use it to showcase your best batting effort. Use it to get yourself onto a different (and better) career trajectory. Use a redundancy pay-out to start your own business. Use a failed exam to take on some voluntary work. Use the time whilst recovering from an illness to take an online course. Whatever the curved ball, it is an opportunity for better things - but only if YOU make that decision.
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