You Can't Manage Change If You Don't Understand It

“There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in travelling in a stage-coach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.” Washington Irving

Perhaps this sounds familiar. Your organization is in transition. You may even have the bruises to prove it. Everyone seems to believe in quality, teamwork, and the need for good communication, but people keep getting frustrated and stuck. You wonder if your organization should do more training, and you wonder if it will help.

Let me suggest that the first step in managing change is understanding change. It’s very difficult to cope with something that makes people fearful, uncertain, and doubtful. If you start with my FOUR change principles, you’ll be in a better position for understanding and using the change for good. Let’s talk about the first two principles today.

Principle #1 — Change Is Never A Neutral Experience.

Change always triggers some very strong emotional reactions. Change might trigger negative reactions such as anger, bitterness, or resentment. Some of your employees might feel betrayed, thinking, “How dare you change our work schedule! I’ve worked all these years to get ahead, and now you tell me you’re changing the rules.”

Some employees might welcome the change, feeling such things as excitement, joy, and challenge. Still others might feel awkward, ill at ease, and self-conscious, not knowing what to do or how to succeed in the new environment.

The key thing to remember is that all these emotional reactions are normal. Allow them, and don’t short-circuit the change process by getting upset with your employees’ reactions. Don’t tell them to “Suck it up, live with it, and get on with it.” All that does is force employees to stuff their feelings and make them less willing to follow your leadership.

Principle #2 — When People Don’t Talk About Their Reactions To Change, Those Reactions Go Underground And Later Emerge As Symptoms.

Stuffed thoughts and feelings do not disappear. They simply get too hard to hold back. Your employees’ reactions will come out some way or another.

Take a beach ball, for example. If you were to hold the ball below the surface of a swimming pool, it would take some effort, but you could do it, at least for a little while. After a bit, your hands would weaken, the ball would slip from your grasp, and shoot to the surface and into the air.

But notice what happens. The ball never comes straight up. It always comes out at an angle; it comes out crooked or sideways. The same thing happens when employees suppress their change reactions. After a while, your employees cannot suppress their feelings anymore, and their feelings come out in a myriad of symptoms that hurt everyone’s productivity.

This is where your leadership discernment becomes critical. It takes a sharp eye to see reactions as nothing more than symptoms. Most people try to treat the symptom rather than the underlying cause, and as a result their change efforts are less than satisfactory.

If you and your coworkers are not doing enough talking about the changes in your office, your company, and your industry, then you’re going to have four types of symptoms. And you’re going to have them in abundance.

Some of those symptoms might be PHYSICAL. You’ll notice more headaches, muscle tension, and a host of other illnesses among your people.

Other people will show PSYCHOLOGICAL symptoms. They’ll exhibit more fear and may even have panic attacks. There will be an increase in addictive behavior where they may eat, drink, smoke, or sleep more, anything to anesthetize the pain that comes with the change.

Perhaps more visible in the office setting will be the INTERPERSONAL symptoms. You’ll hear more blaming and more negative comments about those vague people known as “they” or “them.” You’ll see more conflict, the formation of cliques, and the distancing of some relationships.

Finally, you’ll see ORGANIZATIONAL symptoms throughout the workplace. In fact, there’s a set of symptoms that is so common that it’s almost a syndrome. It starts with whining, moaning, griping, and complaining in the coffee room. Then it turns into a heavy, dark energy that you feel as soon as you walk in the door each morning. This chronic negative energy shows up in absenteeism, turnover in the office, and changes at the top.

The light goes out in people’s eyes. There’s a loss of spirit. Those who come to work come out of obligation, melancholy, and routinism. They no longer come on fire. They might even say such things as, “I’ve only got 5 more years, 2 months, and 6 days, and I’m out of this place.”

Change will take place. That’s a given. But if you understand the change process, you’re in much better shape to manage the change in a positive way, productive way. Look for the next two change principles in next week’s “Tuesday Tip.”

Action: Take a symptom inventory of your organization. Look for and write down all the PHYSICAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, INTERPERSONAL, AND ORGANIZATIONAL symptoms that may be occurring as a result of poorly managed change. Share your inventories at a team meeting, and come agreement on the top 3 symptoms. Then plan out one thing you and your team can do in the upcoming week to handle that symptom and its underlying cause.