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The Impact our Memories Have on Our Willingness and Ability to Change

Think of a major positive event in your life. Remember who was present. Remember what was said and done. Remember the sounds and colors and smells. Remember how you felt. Now look at the faces of the other people who were present. Is it your belief that they experienced things in the exact same way that you did? Or did they tell you that your wonderful memory was not so wonderful for them?

Now think of an especially painful moment in your life and let your mind drift through the same thought process. Was everything about that experience terrible or were there redeeming moments? Do you assume that other people who were present also felt awful? Or have some of them told you that their memory of this episode is rather positive?

Memory is a funny thing. It can make good times seem amazing and bad times seem horrendous. It’s likely that neither extreme is an accurate account of the facts as they occurred. How we integrate our experiences is multi-dimensional and unique. All the senses are capable of memory with smell being the most potent and longest lasting. Emotions color how we make sense of things and time softens or hardens our recollections. In the end, our memories are the stories of our lives and each of us strings together our own distinctive narrative.

When many people have shared extended time together (family, work place, community) it is a safe assumption that there are many versions of past events. So how do we land on “the truth”? We don’t. There is only a collection of personal truths to recount what took place and all of them have validity. This isn’t too problematic until there is a need to reach a consensus or make new decisions or make a productive transition into the next chapter of the story. Think about times your family regaled about the old days and everyone looked askance at your version of reality. Or a meeting at work where you felt the main speakers must have lived on a different planet than you did. However would you be inclined to trust these people and let them lead you into the future?

This is the challenge for leaders who are charged with change agendas. It is very easy to be swept up by each person’s story about the past and how it should be honored or discarded as the organization moves forward. The leader must find that perfect balance between driving forward a new vision and respect for the history. It doesn’t matter if the past was filled with glory or missteps. People will hold on tightly and be reluctant to let go. This is the point where individual and collective memories can muck up the conversation. It is the intersection of personal stories, the call to change, letting go, leaps of faith about the future and the courage to grow. This is a very complicated and very human dynamic.

So how does a leader juggle all of this successfully? There is no magic formula but these things can be helpful.

  • The future vision needs to be personally rewarding and organizationally compelling. Too many new strategies are crafted from the 60,000 foot view. This makes it very hard to grasp, let alone sign up for. The language, the goals, the strategy and the call to action need to evoke curiosity and willingness. “We have come to a place where we can reach further. I have been listening to your ideas and I know there is a groundswell of support to explore XYZ. There is powerful expertise/energy in this group that we are not tapping that can help us grow in XYZ ways.” Rather than present a strategy that a select group of leaders went off in a corner to create, the CEO can engage a wider swath of staff and/or present the future as a collective idea. The message needs to incite a willingness to explore something new; personally and professionally.
  • The myths that have sprung up as “absolute collective truth” must be challenged with facts. A leader can’t erase someone’s memory but s/he can raise doubts that leave an opening for new perspectives on the past. For instance, a former leader who was revered but left under a cloud can be unreasonably glorified. The new leader can remark, “Person X left a mixed legacy. Many people benefitted from his/her talents while others suffered. Few of us are all good or all bad and chances are, once we leave, our closest associates will have mixed feelings about our time here too. In order to move forward, we need to take whatever lessons we learned and embrace the present cast of players and direction of the organization. Holding on too tightly to the past will stunt individual and organizational growth.”
  • Just get on with the new stuff without much discussion and make the new experiences as fun as possible. In other words, create some new memories. Sometimes it is best to minimize (or even disregard) any static in the system and just institute the changes. This works well with smaller things like a new email system or new titles or project teams. Just charge ahead and don’t give the fall out much oxygen. Other times, it is best to choreograph the moment of flipping the on-switch. Think of it as an “event planning” opportunity. Make it fun, irreverent about old habits, forgiving about transitional mistakes and a positive experience of the new thing. The intention in both of these examples is to bypass the angst and just move forward. Not all changes need to be processed to death or achieve consensus buy in.
  • The more human the leader can be about his/her own reactions to change, the more receptive the staff will be. If the leader is experienced as aloof or insensitive to the difficulties the staff is feeling, the resistance to come along will be greater. Conversely, the staff can hear a leader say, “When I envision changes we need to make I get very excited. I get hopped up about all the things we’ll be able to do that we can’t do today. But when it comes to implementing some of these great ideas, I must admit, I sometimes hesitate or struggle. That’s when I have that little conversation in my head when I remind myself that all these changes means me too!” This signals to the staff that the leader is not being blasé about things.
  • In the end, change is about having the courage and motivation to grow. This is an individual decision. In a perfect world, we would all select the content and timing for our growth but that is simply not how it happens. In reality, change usually occurs when external events or people foist it upon us. Leaders need to tap into the human desire to learn new things and acquire new experiences…that ultimately become new memories.

Nostalgia is a gauzy film over our memories. It makes our recollections fuzzy and can cause us to fixate on the past. In our personal or professional lives this can retard growth. If we romanticize the “good old days”, we will long for them and check out of the current reality. (“I love the feeling of cracking open the spine of a new book” deletes the experience of enlarged print and better lighting from an electronic device.) If we demonize the past, we remain stuck in our pain. (“I was passed over for that promotion 10 years ago so now I keep my head down and do as little as possible.”) These are natural, normal, human phenomenon.

Our challenge as human beings, leaders and staff is to focus on the present and future rather than lingering on the past. Do the work to absorb the good or bad from our experiences and keep driving forward. The more we choose to put energy into bygone days, the more we are choosing not to grow. And isn’t that just sad?

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