Peter Milligan

"If you're going through hell, keep going." Winston Churchill’s famous advice was borrowed by business psychologist, Peter Milligan, Director, New Generation Leaders, to encourage internal auditors attending the recent online ACCA Internal Audit Week to push on in these extraordinarily changing and challenging times. “It might be tempting to stay in your comfort zone but there really is no choice but to recognise the cycles of change and move forward,” he said.

In a presentation focusing on building business and personal resilience, the business psychologist highlighted the role of challenge as a test of confidence and resilience: “We navigate difficulties and turn them into strengths. That’s how things work. But entering unknown territory, whether it’s starting a new job, moving country, going on a first date or beginning any other new adventure, makes us nervous and that’s understandable.”

So what universal truths can guide intrepid travellers in life? Peter suggested that the heroes of mythology demonstrate a common path. The call to adventure comes and the hero is initially loathe to leave the comfort of their current circumstances. However, inspired by other people’s heroic stories - and ideally supported by a mentor to guide and challenge them - they cross the threshold into a new world. 

“In this new world, the hero is discovering allies, coming across enemies, being tested constantly and getting prepared for a major transformation,” Peter explained. “His or her enthusiasm might start to stall but on the other side of the dragon is the treasure. 

“Facing up to your own fears brings rewards. However, once you’ve slayed the dragon, you think it’s all over and it really isn’t, but eventually, like the hero, you bring the old and new worlds together and become a better leader. Then you are ready to start your next journey.”

Changing rooms

There are other examples describing this cycle of experience. Psychology has countless models of change but Peter drew attention to Claes Janssen’s “Change House” with its four rooms: Contentment; Denial, Confusion; and Renewal. This model looks at the “phases” we must move through as a natural part of a change process.

“As we leave Contentment and work through Denial, which is the reluctance to change, we then enter the Confusion room, Peter explained. “We have to work through the challenges we are facing and find a better way to be. When we go into the Renewal room, we see we are successfully adapting to change. It’s not all over, we have to keep going, but we are starting to feel hope and re-enter the Contentment room where we can relax and enjoy a period of stability.” 

This simple four rooms model maps beautifully onto the four seasons of the year. Seasons are cyclical: summer is like the contentment phase when all is going well and hard work is bearing fruit. However, we know those days are numbered and the arrival of autumn means summer is over and we are moving towards winter when anything not strong enough to see out winter will die. 

“The same applies to business,” Peter said.” When recession hits, a business that has not stored enough cash or built robust systems or perhaps re-engineered the way it operates won’t survive the downturn. But ones that do often come out the other side stronger and more resilient. Perhaps they have changed the way they operate or the market they serve and as the upturn comes are in strong position to take advantage of it. That’s where we are back to a place of reintegration and mastery. On a personal level we have mastered a skill and can start to benefit from it. Organisationally, we have built something that is now going to be productive.”

Alongside mythology and psychology, philosophy has something to teach us. In Ancient Chinese philosophy, yin and yang is a concept of dualism, describing how obviously opposite or contrary forces can be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent.  

According to Peter, we need both sides. Life is about interplay between these complementary opposites and a dynamic balance flowing back and forth between them.

Binary thinking, Peter explained, leaves no place for nuance or complexity or the notion of complementary opposites. In recent debates, including around Brexit, racism, climate change, and most recently, Covid, people have polarised in their views.

“That polarisation is a source of drama and entertainment, Peter said. “We love it. We pick a side and see the world through that lens. But it is not a good way to build a sustainable society or a sustainable business. In my view, taking sides like this and attacking other’s people’s opinions is about the desperation for certainty we experience in uncertain times. It’s important that you are aware of this in yourself - polarisation is dangerous because it makes room for authoritarian and totalitarian leaders. Conflict is natural and important but we also need to recognise the value of complementary opposites.”

The role of chaos

Currently we are in chaos on many levels. Order is important to us and it is the job of financial and legal professionals to ensure we don’t descend into total chaos in business and society. However, according to Peter, the problem with pure order is that it takes away any capacity to change: “Breaking the old form takes us into a state of chaos and confusion, but it is only by going through those states that we can reform anything. We need to see them as part of the process of change and evolution, both individually and collectively.” 

We can see this principle in action by watching children play on the beach. They build a sandcastle by integrating sand grains into a structure. Later they enjoy smashing it down and then nature finishes the job of disintegration. Overnight, the tide comes and wipes the beach clean. The next day there is a blank canvas to build a new sandcastle on. 

The business psychologist concluded by asking attendees to reflect on three questions around the cycles identified: Where you are now? Where are your stakeholders? What could help you and others move forward if you need to? 

Change is always coming. Sitting in the Denial room might be a natural reaction but it is not sustainable and there are many examples of people making this mistake. One of these is those long-standing high street retailers who thought they could ride out the online revolution and failed to transform sufficiently to survive it.

“Right now, it would be easy to give up,” Peter said. “This is a tough time, and many people feel like their lives are falling apart. It helps to know this map and get things into perspective. Beware of getting stuck in binary thinking. Allow for nuanced debate because when we polarise it makes life hell for everybody. With more change ahead, we need to support each other through what could be a bumpy ride over these uncertain times!”