Much like the Stages of Learning mixed with the Stages of Grief, learning or doing something new—especially at a nonprofit—can be harder than anyone wants to acknowledge. Why? Because often, nonprofits don’t have the same tools, expertise, or resources to make transitions easy or accessible.
So the least I can do—unless you hire me directly to aid you—is give you some insights into what you will or have already experienced in a way that helps build your confidence that there really are stages to change. And that every level is normal.
Ok, maybe I could do even less. But that’s no fun.
I call it the 8 Stages of Grief for Learning or Doing New Things (as a Nonprofit Professional) and I think if nothing else, it’ll feel like a cathartic read.
Ah, stage one. A stage that may only impact one person for the record. But it’s still often the first stage. And it goes a little something like this: Karen (because stage one is always just one person and I’ve named her Karen) has just read a great blog, attended a stellar workshop, spoke with an excitable new consultant, or felt like she just joined a new delightful new religion or coven of like-minded people at a recent conference and now? It all has to change.
And change now.
She is inspired. On fire. She sees everything so clearly. And as such, Karen swiftly calls a meeting, maybe ordering a sandwich platter or baking her famous cookies to soften the stage and invite other like-minded people (all of you) to relish in the new knowledge she has to share that will truly, fully, wholly, fundamentally transform your organization for good – once and for all.
Karen is ready. She just needs to get everyone else ready. And Karen is ready to get you all ready.
The meeting is over. Karen had her impassioned say. And…. it didn’t go well.
We are now at stage two. This stage–except for Karen–includes a mixture of Unconscious Incompetence and classic shock and denial. Stage two is really just stage one for everyone else in reverse. Everything sounds terrible. Implausible. Impossible. And frankly, just dumb.
Stage two is a mixture of passive aggressive confusion and irritation, mixed with a deep desire to call the police on Karen.
Does your local hospital have a psych ward? Wait, you know what? That’s not your problem, that’s for the police to determine.
Stage two is often characterized by the fact that no one really knows what they don’t know. Barring the fact that they know change is hard and sounds terrible. As such, no one in the room—often including Karen—is entirely aware of what the new thing entails or what goals should be outlined, meaning that it’s a million times easier to just suggest the entire venture it’s a terrible idea.
Oh, apparently Karen wasn’t kidding around. Someone in the leadership array has taken her seriously and now you’re hearing that change is indeed coming. A new technology, a new department, a new way of doing something. This stage is classic to a continued shock and denial phase because we’re no longer debating the merits of possibility, but now we’re swiftly moving past plausibility and into actionable.
Forced actionable. If we’re being honest.
Classic symptoms of this stage are numbed disbelief and knowing, pained glances over cubicles and sneaking into back hallways or the break-room where you can complain more freely, expressing how insane everyone is and how maybe it’s time to look for a new job.
On the flip-side, there might also be some of you who instead choose to deny the reality of the situation at some level. To avoid the pain. This is called shock. Often these folks are muttering things quietly at their cube like, “This is still a great place to work…” or “I fully trust our leadership even if I don’t understand why we’re doing this to us…” while surfing online for vacation discounts or buying a new water bottle that will keep coworkers from smelling wine.
You’ve heard the upbeat campaigns, watched the tutorials, and read all of the friendly and moderately empathetic memos. And they sting. But it’s becoming less and less appealing to talk about the sting with coworkers—except for a few hold-outs who have been sending awkward private emails and gifs of cats falling off beds and confusing Game of Thrones references with abandon.
You’ve made it to the level where Conscious Incompetence meets pain and guilt. Why is this so hard? Is it you? Is it the company? I mean, sure you didn’t like this—and still don’t—but why is it taking so long to learn and understand?
You’re finally getting some familiarity and are respecting its existence, so it’s really unpleasant realizing there is still a lot that you don’t know or understand. And moreover, you’re fully able to recognize what you don’t know in a very clear way. Meaning you went from hating this thing to now feeling guilty you don’t understand it.
And that sucks.
And now it’s so much less fun to joke about the new thing with co-workers because it makes you feel more vulnerable than empowered to have an opinion. It’s fun to complain! But now it seems less fun.
So now you’ve moved to talking about how dumb it is with volunteers. Because they don’t have to use it (yet) and they’re always up for a good bitch-session. It helps them feel in-the-know. And what’s the harm in that, really? Right? …right?
See, the truth is you’d never even thought much about the old way or old thing, actually. You never had to. It was just there. It was the default. But now, it’s not that the new way or thing is good or better, it’s that the old way wasn’t that bad. And you know what? It’s also not the enemy.
So, who is the enemy? Because you’re kind of mad. Very mad, actually. And you want to know if we can go back to the old model before it’s too late. Because this whole thing is stupid.
Oh!! And how much did this cost? We ARE a nonprofit you know! I mean, yes we demand more efficiency and better tools, but we didn’t mean this, you idiots.
Oh. And the volunteers are also wondering how much it cost because they were promised new badges and instead we did this. So what’s the deal? I mean. I’m not sure why they’re asking… apparently someone was complaining? So. Right. Anyway.
Welcome to the classic stage of anger and bargaining. See, a few days or weeks ago, you were doing ok. But you were frustrated. You had accepted this. But now you have to engage with the new thing or use the new thing. And in this exchange, you start to think the old thing wasn’t the devil. So what’s up? What’s the point?
And anyone who feels differently needs to take their laptop and go work out back by the dumpsters. They are just suck-ups and jerks who clearly don’t get it and apparently they just want to “advance their careers” or “kiss leadership’s ass”.
There is no other plausible reason.
Shhhh. Ok. Are you alone? Good.
Ok, there will be a moment. A tiny little moment. A tool or a phrase, a tactic or a statement that will catch your eye. And it’ll be good. Like when you learn that Panera delivers kinda good. Or like when you find out that the new Microsoft Word auto-saves on it’s own kinda good. And right then… you’ll have a true moment.
This is called the Upward Turn and now you’re starting to gain a sense of Conscious Competence. In this stage, all of this starts to feel proficient and frankly, just ok. Not simply because it’s what’s expected for you anymore, but because you’re beginning to reach an actual proficiency of knowing, understanding, and using this new thing or team. Your mistakes are shrinking. And its feeling less personal. And weirdly you’re seeing that there is more there to understand.
There are layers. Sure, it’s still different, but its no longer a bad kinda different. You’re feeling less anxious, angry, resentful or depressed and you’re feeling a little more informed and inquisitive about the whole thing.
Now look, this does not mean you’re interested in talking to Brian about how “awesome” this all is. Brian has been talking about how “awesome” this all is from the beginning and how much it was like his last job and how “awesome” it was there. You like Brian. He’s a nice guy. But if his last place was so “awesome” why is he here again? Eh, no matter. You’re going to pop in your headphones, listen to a little Drake or Adele and just smile at “awesome” Brian doing his “awesome” things.
And then, one day—while just feeling like any other day—you’ll get to the office and the subject of the new thing will come up. Somewhere between talking about weekend plans and the new coffee place that’s opening down the road, someone will mention they still don’t understand a specific element of the new thing. And before you know it you’ll say something like “Oh, I can help you with that. See, the thing is that if you just…” And by the end of the sentence you’ll realize that it’s happened. You’re officially in a phase of reconstruction and achieved acceptance of the whole thing.
And it won’t be some big thing. Balloons won’t drop from the sky. Brian won’t walk over and high-five you.
Ok. Maybe he will.
But it won’t be some earth-shattering moment. But for a split second, it will feel like one to you. You’ll realize you’re starting to not just know this new thing, but sort of depend on it, and that will put you in a position to want to help others who are dependent on it feel better about what they need to know or need to do. Or maybe just the topic broadly won’t shake you any longer and you’ll let someone else help them instead.
Because there is one last stage. And not everyone gets there…
Ok. Or maybe it’s not awesome. Maybe you’re not fully becoming Brian. But it is good or at least better. And you do understand it. Very well, actually. And you want to fully help others understand it too. From stem to stern – just like you learned it.
This is where Unconscious Competence meets acceptance and promotion. You have a form of mastery of this new thing or group. You get its features, it’s purpose, it’s power, it’s intent. You have gained an in-depth understanding of the skills and of what it entails. And moreover, you are not just accepting but you’re promoting it’s existence. This doesn’t necessarily mean “happiness” or that you’re still “happy” about the things… because are we every really happy at nonprofits?
That’s another blog for another day.
But this means given the pain and turmoil you have experienced, you can never return to the carefree, untroubled YOU that existed before this tragedy of circumstance. You see everything differently and you want to help others in their own time of need, with their own similar issues. You’ve conquered the indifference, awkwardness or frustrations and you’re now a kind of champion for the cause. And now you can help others too and want to.