I’ve always taught leaders that change involves two key challenges: learning and letting go.
This time, for legions of teachers, editors, and grammar fans, it’s about unlearning. It’s about changing a standard of quality. And that is truly painful. It’s like telling people that effective immediately, the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard is as melodious as a harp.
For word nerds (a term I use with great affection), it’s also about letting go of a part of their expert identity. Those who’ve made a commitment to studying language, memorizing its rules, and protecting its integrity have been correcting and coaching others for years — either as vocation or avocation. They’ve righteously talked or tussled with writers about “more than” and “over” — citing the AP Stylebook as the argument settler. Now the argument is over. Wrong is now right. On this one, everyone’s now the expert.
Expertise is a powerful commodity. In fact, research says that competence and mastery are potent intrinsic motivators. (Watch Daniel Pink’s video — it’s had nearly 12 million views.)
Human beings love to do what they do well. When you tell people their mastery doesn’t matter — even if it’s just letting go of a lone, longstanding grammar point — you see the reaction. Twitter erupts in lamentations from the experts. There’s also laughter from those who’ve been on the receiving end of “over”/”more than” copy edits, as they’ve miraculously become more competent. What a lesson in the emotions that accompany change.
It doesn’t help that this change simply happened. When change is imposed, resistance rises. When people feel they are part of the process, they adapt more quickly. Even if they don’t get a vote, people at least want a voice — a chance for input and insight.
When they don’t get that voice before change occurs, they can get plenty loud afterward. The torrent of comments on Twitter and elsewhere proves that point. It’s creative, clever, rebellious, passionate — and I love it. It’s what wordsmiths do best when challenged by change; they craft their own narratives around it.
I also love the idea that individuals and organizations are talking about what they’ll do next. Will they adapt the AP style? Reject it? Why? With what process? With whose input?
Imagine that: Another exercise in managing change. Learning. Letting go. Look what the AP started.