Our Ho‘ohana for December: Change

Aloha mai kākou. A new month, a new talk story.

Near the end of October, Doug asked if I’d tackle organizational change as a Ho‘ohana topic, and since then, all through this past month I’ve wondered what I’d say about it.

Reflecting back on those times in my own career that change would shatter the regularity of my world, (and there were a lot of instances to reflect on,) I came to this conclusion: At the time it was happening, things were usually pretty tough, but after all the dust had settled and my work-life continued, I would always look back and feel things had been for the best. I was always glad that we had done it—whatever the “it” had happened to be. There was always some victory we’d come away with, and I’d always felt like a survivor emerging from the rubble. Or from the post-its ”

I can clearly remember one such feeling of victorious emergence in early 2000, when all the countless hours of preparing for Y2K and the turn of the millennium left us smiling and giddy with relief as the clock turned and no catastrophe struck. However in our particular organization, that relief was short-lived. A few short months later, we’d learn that we were losing our leader to another company, someone beloved in our entire organization, and highly regarded as one of our last remaining founders and patriarchs. I was his assistant, and I thought of him as a mentor. I felt like my world had turned dark and cold. I felt numb and completely inadequate.

I huddled with my director of human resources and our training manager, and we came up with a plan for transitional meetings that would be held with the entire staff, starting with our management team and then cascading through the ranks. However we were at a loss in what we’d actually say to them: all we knew with any certainty, was that there were things to be said. There were a lot of people who had a need to say them, and so we had to come up with a way to let that happen.

We held our meetings in small groups, and in the middle of the conference table we set a bunch of pencils and stacks of the 3”x5” sized post-it notes. As we talked about the organizational change that was to come, people were encouraged to get out any thoughts they had at all: if they didn’t want to voice them out loud, they could just write them on a post-it note, and let those thoughts be silently expressed in writing. If they wanted us to read them, and know about them, they could leave the post-its on the table. If not, they could peel them away and take them back.

At the end of the first meeting I held with the managers, I took the post-its that remained on the table, and transferred them to one wall above my office desk, for there were words there that I felt needed to be respected for their honesty. Like many, I was still feeling my own sense of loss, and displaying them was the only thing I could think of doing to somehow begin healing. I didn’t quite know what else to do.

I did know I promised to read them, and I did. Four years later, pack-rat that I am, I still have them. This is a sampling of what they say:

I am proud of him, and I have to make sure I tell him.

We are still here, and we are still strong. I know we are.

Why does having aloha for another person have to hurt?

If I put myself in his shoes, I don’t feel so bad about him leaving us.

We’ll be okay, we have each other, and we have this place.

Sometimes change rocks. It’ll be cool. We were getting lazy anyway.

Imagine what all the shifting around can mean for us: new chances, new leaders born.

This sucks, and I hate change. (but thanks for listening.)

Ho‘omau. (Let’s continue, persist, and persevere.)

This isn’t our first challenge, and it won’t be the last. Let’s get on with it.

When can we put the sacred cows out to pasture?

Hey I know what I’m here for, so just let me do my job.

We have our vision, and we have our mission: we’re good.

He wouldn’t leave if he didn’t trust us to keep going without him. I think we’re ready.

There are lots more. They had multiplied over time: people would come into my office and add another to the wall when they thought of something else. Those post-its helped me heal and get on with what was expected of me: leading and managing well. They woke me up, and stirred me to action. The words on the newer post-its changed: venting and emotion gave way to subtle suggestions and new ideas. Ho‘ohana returned: we tackled the constancy of our lives with passion and intention.

One by one, the post-its fluttered to the ground because they lost their stickiness. I’d pick them up, put them to rest in my bottom desk drawer, and we went back to work.

What has your experience been with surviving organizational change? Or are you in one of those times you find yourself wishing for change, and for newness? What is it that grounds you, and keeps you centered and focused?

Let’s talk story.


  1. says

    Organizational Change- a Human Prism
    In my role as an organizational psychologist I have had many opportunities to observe how people deal with change. I have come to the basic conclusion that we all love change. We love everyone else to change. When it comes to making change ourselves, especially when it comes as a suggestion from someone else, we tend to have a less enthusiastic response.
    This may explain why senior managers, the “change drivers”, especially the CEO cannot understand why their people are so reluctant to change. Try telling the CEO they should change their way of thinking and behavior and see how happy they are. Change drivers tend to be in the position of coming up with ideas on how everybody else should change. So, change drivers love change.
    What really separates us into our different stripes as human beings, like a prism separates light into colors, is how we respond to the suggestion that we should change. It all starts with a basic, but unrecognized fact. We spend most of our lives on “automatic pilot”. Our incredibly amazing brains make it possible for us to walk and chew gum at the same time automatically. We can even engage in complex activities like driving a car, or having a relationship, write an email, or even conduct a meeting, on automatic pilot. The problem is, when we are on automatic pilot- “the lights are on but nobody is home”. And the quality of our driving, relationship, email or meeting shows it. So then we get some feedback from someone on that quality. There is a part of us that really likes to stay asleep on automatic pilot. It is comfortable there.
    What really separates as human beings is- how do we respond to that feedback? How do we act when somebody wakes us up with some feedback? Some of us pout. We look hurt, and say- why do I have to change? Was I doing something wrong? Then we can sulk, and hopefully the challenge to change will go away. This is the dependent type of person. The behavior is passive aggressive.
    In another category we find the one, who when given feedback, or a challenge to change, gets even. “Who are you to tell me what to do?” “Let’s drag all your faults out and examine them for awhile”. This is the active aggressive approach, the purpose of which is to shift the argument, and change the subject. Hopefully the feedback or the request to change will just go away.
    Then there is what I call the “Response Able” person. This person is hungry for information that will help them grow. Given feedback to improve, or a challenge to change, they will seek clarification, they may argue the details, but they internalize the feedback and use the energy generated by the challenge to change to propel them forward in life.
    I believe it is true that we are all somewhat intimidated by the unknown, by the new. We don’t know how it will go. It makes us anxious. What differentiates us is how we deal with that intense energy, that anxiety. How we deal with it is a function of our confidence in ourselves, with our experience in dealing with change successfully, and with our trust in the context we find ourselves in.
    This is where we have a somewhat unique environment in Hawaii. Many of the people in our workforce did not have a great experience in school. Many were not taught that they can. They were taught that they cannot. There has been a tendency for many organizations in Hawaii, especially government and the service industries, which makes up, most of the jobs in Hawaii, to not invest in training and developing people at the same rate as other states and other countries. So we fell behind. So much for confidence in ourselves.
    The powerfully labor oriented governmental structures in Hawaii have shielded us here from change until recently. There are still organizations in Hawaii that have changed very little for many years. So when change shows up on the doorstep, for many people it is a threatening stranger. They may not have had the experience that Rosa describes, of looking back on change and seeing that it brought good things into their lives. So much for confidence in dealing with change.
    The final blow is our labor history in Hawaii. So many people have been taken advantage of for so much of Hawaii’s history, that we have a generational suspicion of management, leadership, and change. I encounter many people who seem almost constitutionally suspicious of management, as if, to trust management, they would have to become somebody else that they would not recognize.
    So to achieve organizational change in Hawaii, we have to do a number of things. Leadership has to understand what they are up against. They are up against fear, and they have to change a way of living and thinking that has deep roots in Hawaii. I have discovered a few things that really help:
    Ӣ Leadership that is approachable, that has a sense of humor, that can laugh at itself, and change in the face of feedback from employees. This means leaders need to model healthy change in their own behavior.
    Ӣ Communication is essential, in detail. Change communication tends to be disjointed and fuzzy. People need to know exactly what is expected of them. Then they will be able to figure out exactly what they are afraid of.
    Ӣ Then it is critical to provide training and support to help people deal with what they are afraid of.
    If we can get a person through one cycle of change successfully, they build confidence in themselves and a little trust in us. So start small- baby steps, and build the capacity to change.
    Thanks for listening. You’ve got a cool website here, like Doug said.
    Aloha, Kim Payton

  2. Doug says

    So…Kim P. finally showed up. Good hearing from you, Kim. I am waiting to see who else shows up and comments on his/her experience with change before I weigh in on the subject…but weigh in I must. After all, Rosa was nice enough to take up my suggestion for this month’s topic. I will be back!

  3. says

    Aloha Kim, and welcome to Talking Story. My mahalo for sharing your insights and experiences with our Ho’ohana Community. You give us much to think about.
    For now, let me add this: we can help our CEOs be more receptive to our feedback, by giving it to them often (practice makes perfect!) and with the right attitude of our own. As an executive, I loved hearing from staff who considered themselves my business partners: they gave me feedback that was about “us.” They thought about things Kakou, inclusively, and used the “language of we.” When that happened, I welcomed them as the change drivers, often finding they had far better ideas about needed change than I had!