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Gut Check: Is Your Muscle Memory Getting in Your Way of Change?

It may seem odd but whenever I think about the difficulties of adapting to and leading change, I think of something that happened over 20 years ago involving an old refrigerator.

My wife and I were growing our family and decided to buy a larger home. To save a bit of money, we brought over the kitchen appliances from our old house.

There was just one problem. The layout in our old kitchen meant that our refrigerator door opened from the left-hand side. The kitchen in our new home was oriented in a way that the refrigerator door needed to open from the right side.

No worries, I thought. I popped open a few plastic covers and removed some bolts and pins. In about 20 minutes, I got the door handle moved from the left to the right side of the refrigerator.

I stood back and admired my handiwork, more than a bit pleased that the solution had been so easy.

What I didn’t know then was that getting used to the new door configuration turned out to be more of a challenge than I first thought.

For months afterwards, I approached the refrigerator and instinctively reached for the handle on the left side of the door. This happened time after time. I stood there looking at the door handle on the right side of the refrigerator, but my arm and hand were reaching to the left side.

This was really frustrating from a number of perspectives.

I was the change agent for this project, in that I moved the door handle myself. I knew intellectually that the refrigerator door handle was now on the right-hand side of the fridge. Yet, it took quite some time for my muscle memory to relearn how to open that door. Eventually, we all adapted to the new configuration but it was surprising how long it took.

Let’s fast forward to today and the conversations I’m having with my clients about leading change. Many of them are really intimidated by how difficult it is to get their organizations and leaders to change. I believe part of the reason is that they are dealing with many of the muscle memory issues that I faced when trying to open my refrigerator door.

Everyone is being asked to change, but they are not fully aware of how their old ways of doing things are so deeply engrained. It’s impossible to just change overnight.

Muscle memory happens when a movement is performed over and over again, so much so that it can be repeated without conscious effort. This idea is helpful when we think about change in organizations. At the end of the day, any change requires us to discontinue old behaviors and replace them with new ones needed for success.

When you think about it, change can be initially more challenging for leaders than other employees.

Leaders are busy people and managing change or transformation simply adds to the daily list of tasks. Many leaders on the front lines of change tell me that they feel overwhelmed. Many say they have two jobs. The first job is running the organization as it exists. This means delivering on results that have always been important and doing things in ways that lead in success. The second job is building the new organization that will emerge from the change.

It can be a daunting time in any leader’s career. Many say it can be both exhilarating and exhausting.

What can leaders do to effectively navigate change successfully, both for themselves and their organizations?

The four terms from my book, The Leadership Contract, are particularly helpful at times like this. Let’s review them and explore how they relate to leading change and transformation.

  1. Leadership is a Decision. In times of change, this is an exceptionally important principle for all leaders. You have to be fully committed to change. Change is disruptive for everyone. Ask yourself, are you all-in? If you are not, this will get in your way.
  2. Leadership is an Obligation. In times of change, your role as a leader changes. The things you did in the past may no longer serve you in the present and future. You need to find a sense of purpose for yourself that will help propel you and your team forward. At a personal level, you need to be clear on what your obligation is as a leader. You need to be open to letting go of old ways of doing business and learning new leadership capabilities required for the future.
  3. Leadership is Hard Work. As mentioned earlier, change or transformation usually leads to a massive increase in workload. You still have to take care of daily operational challenges, deliver the numbers and so on. At the same time, you need to bring about the new. You will be challenged to acquire a new mindset, unlearn old patterns and develop new ones. All of this is easier said than done. It’s hard work and it requires you to be open to challenging yourself, to being honest about whether you are holding on to the past, or whether you are embracing the future.
  4. Leadership is a Community. It’s important to understand that change can create anxiety in many people in an organization, even among leaders. In the grips of these emotions, some leaders hunker down and isolate themselves from others. This makes a challenging endeavour even more difficult. Don’t fall into this trap. Reach out to your peers and colleagues. Talk to them, share your concerns, experiences and learnings about change. Connecting with other leaders will help you all get aligned and accelerate your collective progress as you work together to bring about change to your new organization.

This week’s Gut Check for Leaders asks: Is your muscle memory getting in your way of change?

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro is a speaker, consultant, executive at Lee Hecht Harrison, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Leadership Contract now in its third edition.

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