TOM #2: How change works for humans

Posted on: March 27, 2022

Have you ever made a change that didn’t seem to change anything? Maybe the symptoms changed, but you didn’t get the results you were aiming for?

Or maybe, things were actually different…but only for a while. 

Today’s issue of The Owner’s Manual is about change and how, even when we crave for things to be different, we can find ourselves struggling to change them. 

Part 1 introduces the relationship between change and transition, why change is hard for humans, and what you need to do to make change stick. (4min read)

Part 2 introduces the concept of competing commitments and a contrarian perspective on what it means when change doesn’t stick. (4min read)

Part 3 offers tools for leading transitions and uncovering competing commitments.

Let's begin by connecting today's content with your current situation.

What is something you've been struggling to change in a way that sticks?

  • Is there something that keeps happening that you'd rather not?
  • Is there something you wish were happening, but isn't despite your best efforts?

If you’re a human being who happens to own a company, I encourage you to answer these questions three times: as the business owner, as its leader, and as yourself.


Part 1: Change vs Transition

You lead and navigate change in all facets of your life–not just within your company. Chances are, the last two years have been especially intense.

Just because everything has changed, doesn’t mean anything is different.

We business owners have a tendency to be focused on outcomes and view change as a more instantaneous event than a process (partly because we have already spent so much time thinking about and planning the changes we initiate). We typically move our attention from the way things are now to the way things will be after we’ve made the change and act from that “place”. But that place doesn’t exist yet. We need to lead ourselves and our companies to that place. 

If we don’t, the change won’t stick.

When change happens without the humans involved going through a transition, nothing really changes. 

Change is challenging for humans.

When we change something, we are asking ourselves (and everyone affected) to do two things: 

  • Let something go (triggers loss). We need to understand what is ending and what isn't, so we can let go of whatever will no longer be.
  • Embrace the unknown (creates uncertainty). We are abandoning what’s not working anymore (certainty) to try something we hope will work, but can’t know for sure until we try (uncertainty).

What are two of the most challenging things for humans to experience? Loss and uncertainty. 

Change and transition are related, but distinctly different.

Transitioning is required for change to stick.

Have you ever eagerly introduced a new tool or checklist to your team after learning about it in a book or in a seminar, only to be frustrated a few weeks or months later that it isn’t working or no one is using it? 

Have you ever hired consultants to help improve your business and struggled to implement their recommendations? 

Have you ever taken on new daily habits or lifestyle changes and found them surprisingly challenging to maintain?

These experiences are normal. And they indicate that transition has not occurred.

In order for things to actually change, we need everyone involved--including ourselves--to complete the invisible, uniquely personal, and psychologically challenging transition process. 

In his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges describes the universal pattern of transition as having three phases:

  1. Endings: letting go of the old way of doing things
  2. Neutral Zone: going through the difficult time between the old way and the new way
  3. New Beginnings: coming out doing things the new way

No amount of training on the new way, or proof of how much better the new way is than the current way, will enable you and your people to skip the first two phases and successfully implement change that sticks.

@#$*%! 😤!

It can be unpleasant to swallow this truth, but hopefully there’s some comfort in knowing why most change efforts (both at work and at home) don’t work.

Don’t let the tidy-looking transition illustration fool you. The amount of time and effort required to go through each phase is unique to each individual, each team, and each situation. 

Self-Coaching Questions

Knowing yourself better helps you be a better leader. Familiarity with your biases about change, both in general and specifically about the change you’re currently wanting to make, will help you lead it more effectively. Here are a few questions to help you build self-knowledge:

  • What is change typically like, for you?
  • What factors or circumstances typically make change easier for you?
  • What can make change more difficult for you?
  • How have you typically thought about and initiated change in your business?
  • Think of when you've successfully made a significant and durable change in your life or business. How is the version of you after the change different from the version of you who initiated it? What about your identity, beliefs, and behaviors shifted?
  • Now that you know successful change requires transition what, if anything, will you do differently as the leader of change in your business?
  • Where are you in your own transition re: the change you’re currently working through (endings, neutral zone, or new beginnings)? How do you feel? How easy has it been for you to move through the transition curve? What steps can you take to make things easier on yourself?
  • What will you do differently, if anything, as you lead this current change initiative?

Part 2: Gas Pedal vs Brake

If you're like most people, part of what makes it so unpleasant to fail with change is how it makes you feel about yourself. Incapable. Incompetent. Hopeless. 

But what if you’re not any of those things? What if things are going exactly the way you’re intending them to? 

What if that thing you have, that you don’t want, is exactly what your system has been working hard for you to have?

What if things not changing is the outcome that you’re (unconsciously) going for?

Chances are, this is the case. 

How the way our brains work affects whether or not we change.

Our brains are meaning-making machines. They are constantly filtering incoming data and assigning meaning to it. Even when there’s insufficient data to make a valid assessment, our brains are assigning meaning to it. Whether you believe it to be a bug or a feature, this meaning-making process is a hallmark of the human brain.

The innately human aversion to change is actually a drive to keep oneself alive. Our brains value QUAN-tity of life over QUAL-ity of life. Just because something could be easier on us, doesn't mean it's valued. Change means uncertainty. Certain continued survival--even if that survival is unpleasant--has a higher value to our brains than a slightly uncertain but more pleasant future.

Competing Commitments = when our conscious and unconscious minds want opposite outcomes.

When we consciously choose to make a change, our unconscious mind is making an assessment of what that change means and deciding what we are gonna lose if we make this change. When our unconscious assesses that we’re going to lose something critical to our survival (or to our identity), it will induce thoughts and behaviors that are antithetical to making the change. 

This inner conflict involves competing commitments. Your conscious mind is stepping on the gas pedal to move you to a new place while your unconscious mind is slamming the brake so you stay where you are.

Before we continue, I encourage you to give your brain a quick break. Whatever works for you or feels good right now is perfect. Stand up and stretch your fingers to the sky. Step outside and breathe fresh air. Notice something in your space that brings you joy and while gazing at it, allow yourself to really feel that joyfulness.

Self-Coaching Questions

Recall the change you’ve been struggling with that you brought to mind earlier. I invite you to use the change that you’re wrestling with the most, even if that change does not involve your business. Because the inner conflict it’s generating degrades your ability to lead your business. 

  • What is it that you want (outcome/goal)? State the outcome/goal clearly and in the affirmative. For example, "I want to implement systems and policies for how we service clients" rather than, "I want to stop recreating the wheel every time we sign a new client."
  • When you’ve achieved this good outcome, what might you lose that you value?

The answer to question 1 is your concept of the “New Beginning”. It may evolve or shift as you and your team navigate the “wilderness” of the Neutral Zone.

The answer to question 2 is where you need to start your transition process. It is what your (mostly unconscious) mind is focused on–and will continue to focus on–until you let go of what used to be (during The Endings) and complete the psychological realignments and repatterning (while in the Neutral Zone). 

If you found it challenging to answer the second question, no worries. This is normal! 

Competing commitments can be difficult to uncover. If they were obvious, you’d have shifted them already! (You’ll find a simple process for uncovering them at the end of Part 3.)

Your system is working perfectly.

Self-Coaching Questions

Wanting things to be different and being unable to change them can generate significant inner conflict. But it’s more useful to 1) respect the reliability of your system and how tirelessly it works to keep you safe, and 2) notice and acknowledge how the way things currently are have been beneficial.

  • What is your unconscious resistance to this change protecting you from?
  • How are the things you want to be different currently serving you and/or your business?

Willpower doesn’t work.

No change will have a shot at being durable if you’re not in congruence with it. When your unconscious doesn’t want you to have this outcome, the only way you’ll take action toward it is by consciously forcing yourself to. This is not a reliable plan, because willpower wears out. And nobody wins when you fight with yourself.

What actually works is identifying competing commitments, understanding and respecting their origins, and resolving the associated inner conflict.

We can’t unlearn things. But we can learn new ones.

By reading and considering these ideas, you’re opening up possibilities in your meaning-making constructs…and that alone, is powerful.

Self-Coaching Question


  • Now that you understand your brain is working hard to protect you (and that the brains of other people involved are working hard to protect them) what, if anything, has shifted for you?

Part 3: Tools for Leading Transitions and Uncovering Competing Commitments

Pro Tips for Leading Transitions

There are some things you can do to make the transition process less painful (and shorter) for you and your team. This illustration of The William Bridges Transition Curve is provided to help you identify where you and your staff are in your individual and collective transition processes. 

Below you'll find tips and suggestions for successfully leading each of the three transition phases.

Phase 1: The Ending - Identify and acknowledge what’s lost.

“While the first task of change management is to understand the desired outcome and how to get there, the first task of transition management is to convince people to leave home.” -William Bridges

Identify what is ending. And what is not. Who is losing what. Put it into words. Share them. Repeatedly.

If you do not specify what is over and what isn’t, you risk three equally dangerous consequences:

  • Burnout among the people who don’t stop doing anything. They will try to do what they used to do PLUS the new stuff. 
  • Inconsistency resulting from people making their own decisions about what to stop doing and what to keep doing.
  • Chaos due to some people abandoning everything that has been done up until now.

Be mindful that the losses you can identify do not include all of the losses that might be experienced by those affected. Each human on your team has a different map of the “the way things are” and what provides them (dis)comfort in their role. These things are invisible and complex. They are the completely personalized set of attitudes, assumptions, and expectations that drive our individualized experience of whatever is happening in the world around us. 

Be curious about what this change means for each person on your team. Listen empathetically and acknowledge their feelings (without assuming responsibility or making promises to make them feel better).

Phase 2: The Neutral Zone - Normalize that the middle is messy and encourage experimentation.

Productivity typically starts deteriorating the moment you announce things are changing and bottoms out in this phase. This is normal! But you can anticipate this decline and mitigate the consequences.

Consider what would help you and your team keep the business functioning during this phase and put these things into place. Examples include:

  • Identifying what people need to learn and providing resources for them to do so.
  • Adjusting performance metrics, expectations, and workload to create time and capacity for creating and learning the “new way” of doing things. (What work will not be done, delayed, or done differently during this interim period?)
  • Setting short term goals aligned with longer-term outcomes, so the team can experience wins and make meaningful progress on what’s most important.. Feeling a sense of achievement and movement help counter the doubt and confusion that hallmark this phase.

The in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational is when critical psychological realignments and repatterning happens. It’s also the time when you and your team can be the most creative and innovative. 

The break in normal routines provides an opportunity to do things differently and better. When it feels like things are up in the air anyway, most people are more willing to try new things. 

Actively encourage experimentation. Look for opportunities to brainstorm new answers to old problems. For example:

  • If you’re adopting a new CRM software, use this phase to redesign your CRM workflow. 
  • If you’re merging two departments, involve everyone in a series of creative and candid conversations during which you collectively redefine roles, redesign procedures, and remove friction from doing your best work.

Resist the temptation to push prematurely for certainty and closure. Early consensus chokes out new ways of thinking and silences dissent, which can undermine the next phase. Define a period of time for experimenting, how results will be measured, and reward what works and what doesn’t work equally–it’s all useful learning!

Increase the frequency of your communication to dispel rumors, ease feelings of isolation and stress, and normalize the frustrations of being in the messy middle.

Phase 3: The New Beginning - Make the vision real. 

This is the phase when people experience a surge of energy, a renewed sense of purpose, and what it’s like when the change actually works.

Remember that you’re navigating your own internal transition process while also leading your team's transition process. Take care that your words and actions align, even more than you normally do. For example, if you request feedback, be sure to reward it rather than give favor to those who don’t criticize or constructively contribute to what’s happening. 

In Bridge’s book, Managing Transitions, he lists four keys to leading new beginnings: purpose, picture, plan, and part.

1. Purpose: explain the “why” behind this change in plain, easy-to-understand language and ensure you answer these questions clearly: 

  • What is the problem?
  • What is the evidence that substantiates the problem? 
  • What would happen if we did not act to solve this problem?

2. Picture: paint a picture of the new way things will be. Make it a descriptive (and relatable!) vision of the new reality to help everyone visualize the new way and take part in bringing it to life.

3. Plan: outline the actual steps and detailed schedule to make the picture real. Explicitly map out who does what, how, and when. Involve your most detail-orientated operations people in crafting this plan and implementing it.

4. Part: Ensure everyone has two parts to play: 1) a role in the new beginning and 2) a role in the transition process itself.

5 Steps to Uncovering Competing Commitments

This approach to unveiling what impedes your change efforts is derived from the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey and their book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.


Complete each sentence stem.

1. “I am committed to….”

This is the thing that you highly value and want, that you don’t yet have.

2. “What I am (not) doing that is preventing my commitment from being realized is…”

List your behaviors and actions which prevent the change from happening.

3. “I’m afraid…”

Consider the worst things that could happen if you stopped doing what you listed in the previous step and did the opposite instead. Your deeply rooted fear(s) should be palpable as you complete this sentence stem.

4. “I may also be committed to…”

What are you unconsciously driven to do in order to prevent these worst-case things from happening?

5. “I assume that…”

What are the underlying assumptions and beliefs that stabilize and reinforce your worst-case fears? 

Here are example answers to help you better understand each step and how they work together:

1. I am committed to...delegating all client administration work to my staff.

2. What I am (not) doing that is preventing my commitment from being realized is...telling clients to call me if they have questions, randomly taking on client admin tasks to “help out”, not clearly defining what I want in terms of client admin, and not delegating the authority necessary for my staff to actually handle all client admin.

3. I’m afraid that clients will discontinue working with the company if I completely withdraw from account admin. I'm afraid mistakes will be made that will cause us to lose clients.

4. I may also be committed to preventing my staff from feeling overworked and me and the business from struggling if/when they quit working here.

5. I assume that if I’m not involved in client admin, I’m not valuable and that my clients & employees will (be more likely to) quit.

If you'd like help uncovering your competing commitments, click here to schedule a complementary call so we can find them together.


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