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Managing Change Effectively In the Workplace - Part 2

March 1, 2012  by  Janice Corbin and Janet May
Category:  HR Advisor

This Advisor column was originally published in March 2007.

In our previous article, we discussed the inevitability of change and provided some practical tips for helping change go more smoothly. Those tips, however, miss one key aspect that can be expected with any change, namely, that employees will have emotional responses to the change. As a manager or supervisor you must be prepared for their emotional responses.

The process of making a change means something that was familiar will end and be replaced by something that is unfamiliar, unknown, and unproven. The emotional response that occurs with a change is more about the “loss” of something in the employees’ everyday lives rather than about the change itself. Because the employees perceive they are losing something the change often feels very personal despite the fact that it is a business related change.

Managers/supervisors need to be prepared for employees to demonstrate a wide range of emotions, and go through a number of different stages of emotions before the change is fully implemented. For example:

  • Anger, i.e., rage, conflict or attempts at sabotaging the change;
  • Subtle denial demonstrated by an attempt to strike a deal, i.e., for a delay or something different if management agrees to “go back” to the old way;
  • Anxiety and/or sadness, i.e., silence, tears, absenteeism, remarks about “being stressed out”;
  • Disorientation or confusion, i.e., missed deadlines, frequent complaints about not knowing what to do, frequent requests for clarification;
  • Depression, i.e., a general lack of interest, remarks about being “tired” or feeling like the end of the organization is near.

Given these anticipated emotions, how should a supervisor or manager respond?

  • Remain open to listening to the employees’ concerns, fears and emotions without becoming defensive, angry or critical. But do so while reaffirming the need to proceed with implementing the change.
  • Openly acknowledge the employees’ feelings rather than pretending they do not exist. For example “I understand from what you have told me that you are worried about how the new technology will work with our current system. It is natural to have some level of apprehension whenever new technology is introduced.” The flip side is that you should not guess at the employees’ feelings if they haven’t been expressed in some fashion.
  • Set the example. Even if you are unhappy with the change, exhibiting anger or frustration in front of your employees will only fuel their inappropriate emotional responses and will delay the ability of those employees to move on because they will believe that your resistance means there is still hope that the change won’t be made.
  • Remember that it is not your role to become a counselor for the employee. If the employee continues to respond emotionally and appears unable to get past the emotions, remind them of your EAP resources.
  • Once the change has been implemented, mark the end of the process by conducting a debriefing, i.e., lessons learned format, to help employees recognize their contributions to the change, the benefits of the new way of doing things, and to acknowledge that the change is now operational. This final step helps to contain the emotional reaction so it doesn’t resurface later as old baggage.
  • After the debriefing, do not allow employees to continue to “recycle” their feelings about the change as that often prevents the workgroup from moving forward in a positive fashion. The definition of the term “recycle” means to repeat a process or use something again in its original form (usually). There are members of a workplace who tend to “hold on to” things that have occurred in the past; things they feel are transgressions or injustices. Their conversation about the past tends to dominate the conversation or issues at hand. This behavior tends to “shut down” the process of team members collaborating and managing the change process and besieges the workplace in negativity.
  • Understand that ultimately it is the employees’ choice as to how they decide to respond to the change, and to some extent, that choice is outside your control. When employees realize they have a choice, it provides them with the confidence and energy to manage the change effectively, while not engaging in the negativity that can be passive resistance to the change. Employees generally will choose one of the “three A’s” – alter, avoid and accept:
    • Alter – The employee seeks alternatives to experiencing the change, i.e., a change in work schedule, assignment, supervisor, atmosphere, or work team.
    • Avoid – The employee chooses not to deal with the issue. The employee is essentially confirming that he/she is aware of the change, but that he/she will not resist or support the change. In other words, the employee will neither be an obstacle or a supporter of the change, but will continue to do his/her job while avoiding the change as much as possible.
    • Accept – The employee chooses to accept the workplace as it is. He/she transfers the energy he/she would have put forth in “resisting” the change toward self development, acquiring new skills, or volunteering for a special project that gets exposure from another arena.

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About Janice Corbin and Janet May

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