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Leadership toolbox: how to use change stories to transform your reality

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Our change stories can make or break us as we navigate change. I’ve written previously about how we humans are sense-making machines. We always seek out a story that explains what we are experiencing. And if what is happening doesn’t come with a story that makes sense to us, we’ll make up one that does! (This is why the rumour mill goes into overdrive when people sense a change is coming, but aren’t being told what’s happening).

Change is our only constant

I think it’s fair to say that, so far, the 2020s have shown themselves to be the decade of navigating change, whether or not we are willing participants in those changes! This makes now a great time to think about the stories we are hearing, telling ourselves, and sharing with others.

What are your stories?

So much of the way that we think about and approach change comes down to the stories we hear and tell ourselves about the change. Whether they’re given to us by those who are advocating for change, or ones we create, change always comes with stories. And those stories affect how we respond to change.

Default stories

We have default stories that come up when we confront change. Below is a selection of common stories that come up during change, and how they can affect our response.

  • The “ulterior motives” story – this starts from the assumption that we aren’t hearing the truth, and there are hidden reasons or actions that will harm us. We withhold trust, and often link up with others who have similar suspicions to fight the change.
  • The “they know best” story – this starts from the assumption that those calling for the change are experts, and we don’t know enough to challenge their thinking. We can end up moving into the victim story as a result.
  • The “I’m the victim” story – this starts from the assumption that change happens to us, rather than through us. We can lose our sense of agency (personal power) and abdicate our responsibilities. We might try to passively resist change, but typically fall into resentful compliance.
  • The “I have a part to play” story – this starts from the assumption that we have agency and personal responsibility. We believe we can make a difference, that most humans are pretty decent and that checks and balances are essential to reduce the chance of the change excessively benefitting or harming any one group. We are comfortable asking questions and checking our thinking by discussing the situation with other people who will be affected, and those who will not.

The story you have told yourself about what you can’t do has hurt you for your entire life.

Evan Carmichael

Changing our stories

Happily, we aren’t stuck with our default story (if we don’t want to be). When we practice self-awareness, we can recognise when our default stories crop up and shift our story.

First, we must believe

All change starts with believing that change is possible. Sometimes this doesn’t come easily, but each of us is proof we can change: we sample unfamiliar foods, meet new people, start new jobs, try a new shampoo, and memorise the lyrics to our latest favourite song.

These are all examples of change, and we do a lot of them without worrying about how we’ll adjust. In fact, the adjustment can sometimes be the entire reason for our choice.

Then, we must get active

Meaningful change doesn’t happen by accident – we need to take action. Pick the story you want to change, identify how it shows up in your life, get clear on the new story, generate and practice alternatives, and get a tribe around you.

Review your current thoughts, words and behaviours

  • What thoughts are on repeat in your mind? How do they keep you stuck in your existing story?
  • What words and phrases crop up regularly when you speak? Look for trigger words (can’t, have to, should, never, always), and negative words (loss, failure etc).
  • Which behaviours line up with your existing story?

Clarify your new story

Now, get clear on your new story:

  • What’s the “moral” of your new story?
  • What do you do differently in the new story?
  • Which thoughts, words, and actions align with the new story?
  • What will it feel like to be 100% in the new story?
  • What results will you see and experience?

The more richly you can imagine the new story, the more you’ll be recruiting your subconscious to help you make the transition.

Embed your new story

It’s not enough to come up with a new story – that doesn’t magically change everything for the better. There’s some work involved.

But the great news is that everyone is able to create and embed their new stories, with a little persistence. (That means you, too!)

Identify alternative words and phrases, and practice them

Come up with a list of alternative words and phrases aligned with your new story – this is known as reframing. For example, during Covid-19 lockdowns, we can say “I’m stuck at home” or “I’m safe at home”. Notice when the old thoughts and words are coming up, then actively replace them with new ones. You might find it helpful to put the new ones on notes and stick them around the house.

Identify several actions that align with your new story. For example, if you want to focus more on good things, subscribe to a positive newsfeed (e.g. Positive News or Good News Network), and read it before the “if it bleeds, it leads” news.

If you want to change your snacking behaviour, dump what you don’t want to eat, and stock up on healthy snacks and decide what you’ll do when you get an urge to snack (e.g. drink a glass of water or brush your teeth).

Befriend frustration

I know that sounds ridiculously Zen, but bear with me! This process of changing your story will contain moments of frustration when you’ll feel like you’ve missed the mark for the millionth time.

But what if those moments of frustration were actually signs you are making progress? Yes, I’m suggesting you change your story around “failure”!

When we are stuck in our default story, we don’t think about how we think, speak and act. When we decide to change our story, we become more mindful of our thoughts, words and actions. Each time our old story bubbles up is a chance to enact our new story.

So, try to be happy when your frustration comes to visit because it is a sign you are paying attention and getting opportunities to practice living your new story!

Build a tribe

Change isn’t easy, and shouldn’t be a solo pursuit. Build a tribe of people on a change journey, to support and encourage one another and celebrate each other’s wins.

Where can you find your tribe? Look for the people in your life who have “levelled-up” in some way: they talk about possibilities, encourage others, and not only believe they can be better but also take action to make it happen. Those are your people.

Connect to your tribe regularly – in these pandemic times, that might mean face-to-face is out, so you need to use phone or video calls, or an appropriately-distanced walk outside (if your local regulations permit). Or, you could join a virtual group or online community. Tribes don’t have to be huge – sometimes connecting to one other person is enough.

When you connect, show up authentically. There is power in being real about your challenges and successes. The principle of sowing and reaping is always at play – you only get out what you put in, so make sure you’re putting in good things!

Celebrate your wins, big and small

This is an epic journey, not a 100m dash. It will have twists and turns and you’ll go down some dead-end streets. So don’t wait until you’re perfectly aligned with your new story before celebrating. Recognise the little and large wins along the way, and share them with your tribe so they can celebrate along with you.

My personal experience: the power of a tribe combined with celebrations

One of my favourite humans is a vastly superior runner to me. But she is always excited to hear how my running is going and celebrates every bit of progress I make as if it were her own win. She also genuinely commiserates when it’s hard. And I do the same for her.

Our celebrations range from surviving an unpleasant run to personal bests. The support and celebrations help me stay committed to my training and persist when things get tough. And I’m a stronger runner because I’m not doing it alone.

We are a tribe of two – and our “tribe-ness” isn’t limited to running; we offer and receive support, encouragement and cheerleading on many topics, large and small. I cannot overstate the importance of this friendship!

From the personal to the organisational

And what works on a personal level works at the organisational level. Each organisation has default stories that are helping or hindering the achievement of its goals. To change our organisational stories is to change our organisational culture. So, it is vital that we choose our new stories wisely. And we need to work to embed those new stories, with the support of a tribe who get what we’re trying to do, and will commiserate on the hard times, and celebrate the progress.

How will you apply this principle to your work?

So, how will you use stories to enable your organisation to achieve its goals and deliver on its strategy? What thoughts, words and actions are required to move the organisation towards success?

Organisational Culture Scan

I’m an accredited Organisational Culture Scan practitioner with Hofstede Insights. They have developed the Multi-Factor ModelTM; a robust, research-driven tool and process to diagnose your actual (current) culture, define your optimal culture and build a pathway between them by addressing thoughts, words and actions at all levels of the organisation.

You can find out more about the Hofstede Insights approach here.

Leadership development and culture transformation programmes

I’m also an experienced facilitator and trainer for leadership development and culture transformation. I offer tailored workshops, coaching and transformational programmes that give you the tools to make lasting change.

If you’re interested in discussing how I can help your organisation to succeed, please get in touch by phone, email or using the contact form.


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