Last week I learned a lesson about leading change that I won’t soon forget. And it came from… an invoice…
For 17 years I’ve used the same process after finishing a project: I staple expense receipts to pieces of paper, open a Word document that summarizes fees and expenses, place them in an envelope and mail it. I always pay extra for breast cancer stamps, as a small way to honor my mother who died from the disease at an early age. I never fail to attach those stamps.
This process has been flawless. And I was convinced that my clients appreciated my down-to-earth, low-tech approach, which I feel mirrors my personality.
Even straightforward change can be disruptive
What happened last week was this: A colleague who I hired to work on a large project emailed me his invoice, which I needed to compile with other invoices into one master document. He sent PDFs of his receipts, which he had scanned with an app on his smartphone. There were 36 separate pages of receipts, one per page. Now what was I supposed to do, print all 36 pages and send them?
When I called my colleague he told me he hadn’t saved his original receipts; all he had were these electronic versions. He said that all his clients used this method and that they really appreciated the efficiency. He asked why I would spend valuable time stapling receipts and licking envelopes. I mumbled some vague response that I enjoy staplers, and quickly got off the phone.
And then I went into a tailspin. I panicked about reconciling two distinct invoicing methods. I was angry that my colleague was ‘obviously’ making fun of me as an over-the-hill Luddite, accusing me of being resistant to change. I felt helpless in the face of a technology I was incompetent to use.
As days went by I discussed the situation with other colleagues, clients and family. To my chagrin many of my consulting colleagues (but not all) had adopted this new invoicing method. My wife Terri, whose own company required the more modern invoicing system, joked that I really was stuck in the past and that I should get over myself. That helped a lot.
I decided to confront my colleague about his accusations and dismissiveness. Of course I tactfully ‘owned’ my hurt reaction to his comments. To his credit he acknowledged his frustration about the situation, and expressed regret that he hadn’t checked with me first about the receipts. It was a great release of tension between us. Then he showed me the app on his phone, which was a little challenging to use but not as hard as calculus.
A few days later I told a few clients that I am transitioning to a new invoicing system, to which they basically responded, “Finally.”
It’s not about the invoice
When leaders introduce change, powerful emotions are activated: fear of the unknown, loss of identity, and feelings of incompetence, to name a few. In my case, this seemingly straightforward change of invoicing processes kicked up all these feelings, and yet one more: By no longer affixing a breast cancer stamp to an envelope, I was symbolically losing (once again) my relationship with my mother, who had died so long ago.
I learned through this experience that what we often label ‘resistance’ to change is a handy yet unfortunate characterization of these fears and feelings of loss. Handy, because it feels more manageable to label and box something that is messy and non-rational. Unfortunate, because to label someone ‘resistant’ gives us tacit permission to look down our noses at them, and prevents us from approaching them with curiosity or empathy.
What appears on the surface to be a straightforward change can disrupt even high-achieving, resilient people, a club in which I thought I was a member.
In the future, I will more frankly remind clients to be alert to the emotional impact of change on the people they are leading. And I will be even more careful when I introduce and lead people through change, whether in my professional or personal life.
By the way, I wrote this blog post longhand in cursive on a pad of paper, and transposed it afterwards to my computer. Just sayin’…