The Emotional Side of Change

Jan 24, 2019

Leading the emotional side of change requires the ability to embrace change and uncertainty as facts of life, to feel at home in uncharted territory. This, in turn, requires the ability to make friends with the anxiety that change creates, and use it in positive ways. It is this ability to harness and direct anxiety—to create just enough anxiety—that will enable today’s leaders to master the emotional side of change.

Enough Anxiety?

What is just enough anxiety? It is the right level of anxiety—at any given moment in time—that drives people forward without causing them to resist, give up, or try to control what happens. It unleashes creativity and enables people to stretch beyond current reality into their desired future, closing the gaps that change creates—gaps between who they are and who they wish to be and between where their organizations are and where they are headed.

Too much anxiety causes people to attack change and become preoccupied with success and focused on problems to the point of exhaustion. Leaders with too little anxiety tend to live in a bubble. It’s like they are wearing a self-imposed blindfold that keeps them from having to face difficult problems and limits their ability to learn. However, leaders who hold just enough anxiety within themselves are able to use that anxiety to face uncertainty, conquer change, and perform their best. They do this not only for themselves but for the people in their organizations as well. There are three sets of paradoxical traits that enable top leaders to create just enough anxiety in themselves and others: realistic optimism, constructive impatience, and confident humility. Let’s look at each of these contrasting qualities.

Realistic Optimism
Telling the truth about the present while dreaming about the future signifies realistic optimism. It is the way to keep moving forward in a world that keeps changing. It involves living “here” and “there” simultaneously. When leaders do this, they heighten their organization’s focus, instill a sense of common purpose, and create a clear mental image of success.

If you are realistic, you are neither afraid of the truth nor cynical about it. You’re good at assessing the current situation and are problem-oriented, fact-based, and a great short-term thinker. You face problems and opportunities head-on and look at all sides of an issue—seeing things as they are, not as you want them to be. You know that being honest with yourself and others is an act of courage, and the only way to run a business in a world of uncertainty.

If you are optimistic, you are all about envisioning the future. You’re imaginative, solution-oriented, and a great long-term thinker. You believe that tomorrow will be better than today, and that people are capable of doing more than they think they can. You see the glass half full and you know you can refill it, even if it appears to be leaking.

Constructive Impatience
The ability to build a positive, supportive environment while instilling in people a drive for results defines constructive impatience. It involves learning to be comfortable with discomfort and balancing a sense of urgency with compassion and patience. When leaders do this, they foster people’s hunger to get ahead and challenge them to stretch their capabilities while providing them with what they need to succeed.

Confident Humility
The ability to lead with power and generosity at the same time is the mark of confident humility. It involves being sure of yourself, while openly listening and learning from others. When leaders do this, they build trust, develop productive relationships, and create high-performing teams.

If you are confident, you exude confidence in yourself and express confidence in others. You know and share yourself, talk about your life, and are open about your fears and aspirations. You live your values personally and professionally, and you encourage others to do the same. This makes you predictable and trustworthy.

These three traits enable great leaders to create just enough anxiety within themselves and the people around them. With just enough anxiety, individuals and organizations can survive, and even thrive, in the midst of uncertainty.

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from Leading the Emotional Side of Change: The New 21st Century Leadership Capability: The AMA Handbook of Leadership, edited by Marshall Goldsmith, John Baldoni, and Sarah McArthur. Copyright 2009. Published by AMACOM. For more information, visit: