How to Make Change Feel Magical, by Jen Emery

Written by
Anne Brassier
Published on
December 8, 2021

Before our conversation with Jennifer, we asked people: How do you feel about change and transformation? Responses included: challenged, inspired, frightened, out of control, anxious, worried… Most people were not very positive about the concept of change. Over to Jennifer, the master of change, to talk about how she makes it a positive experience:

Portrait image of Jennifer Emery
Jennifer Emery

Where does the passion for working with change come from and how do you connect change with magic?

The answer to that is in the responses to your question… There’s such tension in the concept of change – fear, negativity and resistance. But there’s also great potential, the scope to unlock something positive and magical. In every aspect of what I was doing professionally and personally, I was dealing with change. I actually find change hard; I’m hopeless at endings… I almost cry if someone leaves the room, never mind emigrating or leaving my life in some way! I also worry about every possible permutation of what could go wrong and I grieve in advance for stuff that might never happen. Yet, I am also someone who loves unlocking potential, moving people and organisations. 

So, how do we grapple with the complexities, tensions and dilemmas inherent in change; how do we ensure we have a relationship with change that is productive and positive… where’s the magic in that?? Magic is about changing things from one state to another – visible to invisible, black to red, square to round. And in the same way that magic needs spells, rituals and stories, change needs stories, patterns and rituals to work well.

What’s your secret to making change feel magical?

The first thing is to acknowledge that change is scary. Your brain makes no distinction between the uncertainty that comes from a change in social status or what’s expected of you professionally, and a tiger chasing you down the street. In your brain, it’s all real and it’s all scary. The neuroscientist, David Rock, has an acronym that I find useful – SCARF. It’s a reminder of what happens to us when we’re uncertain or afraid:

S = status changing

C = certainty

A = agency

R = relationships

F = fairness

Before you can get to the magic of change, you have to put things on better footing. If something uncertain is happening, think about how to give people the status and standing they need. How can you create even a little bit of certainty and give people agency; how can you maintain good relationships between people and make sure what you’re doing is fair, and comprehensible? To do all this, there are three things you need to give people (and we need to talk about this again and again):

  • Great leadership: authentic, wholehearted, sleeves-rolled-up kind of leadership
  • A clear sense of purpose: know where you’re going and why – individually and collectively
  • Storytelling: make it magical of course!

What is the power of storytelling in change?

I love words. Like Rubens, I used to be a lawyer. Lawyers use words for precision and to make things happen, you write detailed words on a page and stuff happens in real life. Now, I write poetry and there, my use of words is different. It is about precision, but it’s also about beauty. I keep a list of words that I want to use because they sound beautiful – nimbus, subterranean, polarities – I’m going to try and get all those words into poetry soon!

But in business, we do the opposite. So often we use bland, abstract language – process, systems, programmes, talent management, governance. At best, they’re uninspiring. At worst, they keep people unquestioning and compliant. 

Storytelling cuts through it all; it gets rid of jargon, nonsense, obfuscation and hiding. Stories move us beyond the surface, past the rational part of the brain that we want when dealing with change at work; stories move us pre and post rationale because they ignite the animal part of ourselves – passions and fears. They also ignite the spiritual part of our brain – what we are here for, what inspires us, what’s our purpose. Stories engage at a different level, they need you not to be a dispassionate observer. What stories trigger in the brain is quite complicated – there’s plot, different perspectives, empathy, cause and effect, implications. All those give way to cascades of perceptions and motivation that enable change to happen in a way that legal rationale doesn’t. And that’s the power of storytelling.

What blocks change from happening?

Not very much, but the blockers are disguised; sometimes they look like process or governance or resources or money. But really, the two big blockers are fear and greed. We’re scared to change, which makes neurological sense. We understand and weigh up the potential losses and downsides of change because it’s much harder to imagine what the future upsides are, the gains we haven’t seen yet.

As for greed and power – if the current way serves you well, you want to preserve that. In transactional terms, there are always winners and losers so to enable change means seeing what people are afraid of and addressing it. If they stand to lose something, address that too. Then things like due process, governance, etc, tend to fall into place.

How do you align process and belonging, and why?

Every organisation is its people; it’s more obvious in professional services – law, consulting or engineering where we sell time and expertise. However great your tech or your brand is, you only have your people. Purpose is why we’re all here and we get out of bed in the morning. Meaningful work, feeling that what we do matters, being able to put our shoulder to the wheel in service of something – that’s what ignites us. The brain and the heart… when you trigger those pathways, it enables people to make discretionary efforts. And that’s what will help our businesses and the world flourish. So organisations need to talk about purpose for people.

But purpose isn’t one single thing – it’s like a Russian doll. There’s a big, broad corporate purpose. There’s the purpose in relation to the particular change you’re trying to effect or the project you’re working on. Then there’s my purpose and your purpose, which will have some relation to the wider purpose. But mine is about me: what’s in it for me, what am I learning, where am I growing, what are the relationships I’m in that matter, what’s my sense of reward from this? 

Purpose matters in all those ways and that’s intrinsically linked to motivation. Belonging is slightly different. There are many longitudinal studies, which show that belonging – far more than weight, age or general health – is a predictor of longevity and health. We’re made to be in relationships with each other. In a corporate business context we forget that. We undervalue the importance of making people feel that they have an identity vetted in the corporation, that they have relationships at work that matter to them and that they’re part of a tribe. These things help your people and your business flourish. But it’s also how you build loyalty. It’s how people accept accountability, take risks on your behalf, make decisions and effort. It’s not about aligning everybody like droids or robots, all preaching the same thing, with the corporate purpose planted into their brains! It’s about harnessing all the motivation that comes from people when they belong and have a purpose.

What’s your approach to change and how did the pandemic affect that, what worked and didn’t?

(Jennifer’s book, Leading for Organisational Change, came out in 2020)

Leading for Organisational Change, by Jennifer Emery

At times, particularly at the start of the pandemic, I felt that it was like launching a fast horse the year the steam train came out! To have written a book about how to ‘do’ change before the pandemic was unfortunate to say the least. But, if I can get my ego out of the way, it’s been the richest learning experience ever – looking at what I had believed, studied and held onto, and thought held water, then working out whether it still did in light of Covid... The changes I talk about in the book were largely self-initiated and somewhat in my control. But take something like a big merger, it is a human-initiated change, but very few people in the company control it. Then there was the pandemic...

The central thesis of the book is that change can be good, not because it takes you from a bad place to a better place, but because the change period itself can be rich, productive, full of growth, learning, added value, and so on. I talk about all the ways that can manifest like building greater belonging and confidence, creating energy, enabling things to be done more simply and people to be more agile. But it depends on those three conditions I mentioned earlier: great leadership, a clear purpose and storytelling. 

What we’ve desperately needed, in business and in life, has been great leadership – a north star, a unifying sense of direction and purpose. And sense making – understanding what the heck is going on and what the future will look like. We need the opportunity to evolve and simplify.

What did I underestimate in the book? I used the word energy rather than resilience. I wanted it to feel positive, that change can be a generative experience where you get to grow and spark ideas off each other. But the pandemic taught us that protracted change on that scale with that amount of uncertainty and lack of control, was so draining and so hard for people. Thinking preventatively, how do you build resilience and wellbeing to enable any change? A second edition of the book would reflect that – I’d put in more about wellbeing and resilience.

How do you create space in the change process where magic can happen and people can flourish?

During the pandemic, I worked closely with the senior leaders at Arup and they felt overwhelmed, they had so many things to do. They weren’t just leaders at that time: they were parents, partners, sons, daughters, doctors, teachers, counsellors and coaches too. But what did being a great leader at that moment mean? It meant creating a context for their people, to help them make sense of what was going on for them. Giving people a vision – help them tell their story, elicit their purpose and explain the corporate purpose to them; creating a place where action can happen, where people feel they can act and are trusted to do so. There are three great gifts leaders can give:

  • Attention: show up for people, be present
  • Permission: tell people it’s ok to take a break and model that by looking after yourself
  • Trust: empower people to make decisions and act; show you believe they have the best interest of the organisation in mind

The senior leadership team at Arup
Jennifer with Arup's senior leadership team

How do we change the nature of leadership given so many operate in a top-down manner?

The book tackles something I think about constantly – advocating a shift in the leadership paradigm, from the top-down, paternalistic, shouting loudly and resisting change approach. Instead, how about embracing uncertainty and demonstrating a degree of vulnerability. That shows courage, a leader prepared to admit they don’t know everything. Co-create solutions and listen to people – that’s a big shift in paradigm.

But how do you achieve that? With time, development and support. And to some extent a change in the actual people. Role model to show people that better results do happen if you step into things. Listen and create with people from the periphery of your organisation who have the knowledge you need. Cut through the BS and the façade to what people are afraid of. Show up as a real human. Address everyone’s status, their relationships, what they need to protect. And highlight where they have agency and choice.

And to finish…

What’s your superpower? 

An encyclopaedic knowledge of random pop lyrics, mostly from the 80s and 90s. Plus the ability to inject them into any conversation! Seriously though, I have the ability to synthesise; I can make complex things simple and I can tell a story back to people. I love to do that.

Tell us a secret…

I have four kids and we had mugs made with their initials on them. Only two mugs are left, one with an F and the other with an E. In my head that means friend and enemy. When I make cups of tea for people, I give them the mug I’m in the mood for. So, if they’re annoying me I give them the E mug. It’s so unbelievably petty!!

If you had a magic wand, what would you change?

I’d enable us to have better conversations with one another. In the Tower of Babel story people talk different languages; I’d reverse that so we can all connect and understand each other across every border that exists. It could be so beautiful if we took the time, insight and capacity to understand each other better.

Thank you to Jen for talking to us. There’s a lot of food for thought here and it’s clear that if well managed, change can indeed be magical!

Further resources

This conversation is available as a podcast

Below: David Rock's TedxTokyo talk: Learning about the brain changes everything

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