People react to change with some version of one of four reactions: anger, sadness, confusion and withdrawal. In the past editions, we’ve taken a close look at anger, sadness and confusion. In today’s Lightning Byte we’re going to take a closer look at the change reaction of withdrawal.
“A brain tumor. Wow. I didn’t see that coming.”
As I hung up the phone, my rapid-fire mind came to a screeching halt and sat there in stunned silence. Wow. A brain tumor. Now what?
My Type A father, a retired veterinarian, newlywed, avid dancer, qigong practitioner and self-proclaimed health freak, had just discovered his high blood pressure headaches were actually the result of a butterfly brain tumor growing deep within his head. This was the last thing we had expected. After all, more than one doctor had reassured him that once his blood pressure was under better control, the headaches would go away.
I shook my head as if to jumpstart it from its stalled position. The only thing I knew for sure was that I had to get out of the house. I had to have some time to myself. I had to think, process and ponder this sudden change that was thrust upon me without warning.
I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to scream in anger. I just wanted to withdraw from the world and gather myself and my thoughts.
I grabbed my two dogs and went for a long walk in the autumn twilight. There was something therapeutic in the robotic activity of walking. It required no thought and no effort. Just one foot in front of the other over and over again.
In the comforting cadence, emotions began to appear like falling stars in a black midnight. A few more steps and fragmented thoughts began to form and coalesce into sentences. Slowly, as the red and yellows leaves crunched underfoot, the crisp air began to re-awaken my stunned mind like a neurological defibrillator. Soon I was hitting on all 8 mental cylinders. And I knew I was ready to rejoin the nightmare that was unfolding.
I don’t know about you, but when change wallops me upside the head with a telephone pole my natural reaction is to temporarily withdraw or disengage from the situation so I can go inward and regain my bearings. Like most Type A’s, I am action-oriented. I hate wasting time wringing hands, running willy-nilly or blowing my top like Vesuvius. And when I take action I want my actions to be thoughtful, aligned and effective. Withdrawing gives me the precious space and time to do just that. For me, it’s like rebooting to get a fresh hard drive. Once I’ve rebooted, I’m ready to deal with whatever is thrown my way.
As with the reactions of anger, sadness and confusion, withdrawing in response to change is a normal and natural reaction. It only becomes a problem if you get stuck and can’t move forward. Persistent withdrawal or disengagement may be an indicator of a deeper fear or concern.
Are you or someone you know stuck in withdrawal?
Signs that someone may be stuck in withdrawal or disengagement:
• The person avoids discussing the change.
• The person appears to lose interest and initiative. She quits but still draws a paycheck. She puts in her time, but not her energy. She is no longer passionate about her work or fully committed.
• She covers up her loss of commitment by adopting a “no problem” attitude, keeping a low profile or flying under the radar.
What you may see when someone is stuck in withdrawal:
• Being hard to find.
• Doing only the basic requirements.
• Shrugging shoulders.
• Won’t ask questions.
• Won’t seek information.
• Won’t discuss the situation with others.
• Expends great amounts of energy to avoid interactions.
• Hides in his office.
• Won’t make eye contact during meetings.
• Deflects questions.
What you may hear when someone is stuck in withdrawal:
• “Just keep your head down.”
• “No problem.”
• “It’s okay.”
• “I don’t care.”
• “What else is new?”
• “Anything you say.”
• “I’ll do my job.”
• “No big deal.”
• “It won’t affect me.”
• “It’ll be temporary.”
• “This happens every four or five years.”
What to do if you have a direct report who is stuck in withdrawal:
1. Realize you will need to make the first move. Your goal is to get discussion – not generate enthusiasm.
2. When you talk to the person provide a safe environment. Don’t be critical or demanding. You want the person to open up to you.
3. Be direct. Tell him exactly what you’ve seen. Try to surface his underlying concerns and feelings. Use “I” statements. “I’ve noticed that you’re not actively participating in team meetings. You seem very quiet. That’s not like you. What’s happening?”
4. Be quiet and listen closely. Be prepared to dig for information. You want to start a dialogue.
What to do if you are stuck in withdrawal:
1. Realize that prolonged withdrawal is avoidance behavior. Ask yourself what it is that you are avoiding.
2. Identify what underlying concern or fear is fueling your withdrawal.
3. Resist the temptation to blame others for your situation. Take responsibility for your feelings. When you blame others, you are assuming the role of victim. You are choosing to be powerless.
4. Talk to someone you trust about the fear or concern that lies beneath your withdrawal.
5. Take action – even it’s a very small first step – to breakout of withdrawal and into more full engagement. For instance, if you are afraid you’re not sure what to do, take action to get more information to help you feel comfortable making a decision. Or, if you really hate your job or your boss, take action to find a new job.
Want help leading change? Give me a call. I can help.
P.S. For those of you who may be wondering, yes, my father has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor. As of this writing, we are unsure of what lies ahead. The only thing I know for sure is that I will be flying back and forth between Kentucky and Texas over the next weeks and months as our family moves through this difficult situation. If you need to reach me urgently, please contact my superstar Type A assistant Nora Rubinoff at email@example.com or (513) 252-2550.