In a transition there are emotional responses to the losses that people experience because of the changes. This is normal but often these responses are taken by others as signs that the change is being resisted. Those leading change need to recognise these emotions in others and themselves, and develop ways to manage their own emotions and assist others to manage theirs. Unmanaged, these responses may undermine the changes and have personal consequences.
This process has been likened, psychologically, to the grieving process.
Everyone deals with such major changes in their own way but we can identify a number of stages that staff might go through.
Each of the stages in the process needs to be recognised and responded to accordingly. For example, it’s no good expecting grudging acceptance when staff are still in shock. You are more likely to get anger and no argument, no matter how reasonable to you, is likely to win staff around.
For those, managing the change, the challenge is to get staff through from shock to grudging acceptance in as fast a time as possible whilst minimising stress and limiting the effect on other areas of the organisation.
Shock and denial
I couldn’t believe it! We had agreed to work towards building up student numbers in the department at a previous consultation meeting. The final decision to close us down came out of the blue. I still don’t understand the criteria for the decision.
No matter how well impending decisions have been trailed – once they become known there is a period of shock. People refuse to believe them at first – all large organisations abound with rumours that never come to fruition.
The shock stage is usually short-lived. Actions to take include:
- Communicate the broad headline issues, the reasons for change and the actions that will happen
- Don’t expect people to make decisions or take actions people will not be interested about the future as much as the past
- Be available and prepared to listen
- Think about a strategy to help staff through the remaining stages of the process
There were other departments that weren’t recruiting well but it was decided that ours should be the one to go. The data that was at the heart of the decision wasn’t trusted by many academics throughout the institution.
After the shock employees may feel as though ‘the rug has been pulled out from under them’. The trust level within the organisation drops, and people who feel betrayed develop a generally suspicious, ‘save-your-own-skin’ attitude. Some organisations have reported suspicion among peers and a withholding of information for fear of advancing somebody else’s interests. Actions here include:
- Communicate again the reasons and who is likely to be involved
- Clarify and make clear the timescales for the decision-making process – and ensure these are kept to
- Be honest about the future
- Don’t develop a blame culture – deal with issues not people
- Be available – but don’t expect a rush of people to talk to you
Anger and guilt
People were very angry. The Unions were involved and the case went to tribunal which the institution lost. Three years on, some people are still angry about how it was handled.
Change creates winners (those who benefit from the change) and losers (those who don’t). The winners can often feel guilty and the messengers of the change may also feel guilty. Guilty people usually express their feelings indirectly and may feel uncomfortable around the losers. They may overcompensate (‘don’t blame me, I didn’t plan this change’) or they may even blame and/or patronize the losers for not being able to cope with the change well. This can also affect communication – those not involved don’t know what to say to those that are, leading to an even greater sense of alienation by those most affected.
Those who don’t benefit from the change or those whose friends/colleagues don’t benefit can feel resentment, especially towards the hierarchy. They can become angry, blame the organisation and can look for ways to payback (working slowly, leaving work undone, leaking documents, making mistakes or organising opposition).
At this stage:
- Provide opportunities to let off steam
- Expect open anger from some staff and acknowledge it as a natural reaction
- Respond with empathy to people’s sense of loss
- Start to explain the need for change in more detail but don’t expect to be listened to straight away
- Be careful about the wording of even confidential documents – they may become public
- Don’t expect engagement in new processes or decision-making at this stage
Depression, anxiety and stress
The response to the decision was that people started looking for other jobs and in the middle of the year some staff left which put the rest of us in a difficult position. This was very de-motivating and very stressful.
Some people get anxious from the first rumour of change and when the changes are complete they then worry about the next set of changes. Nervousness, working extra time and taking on extra work to ‘please the boss’ can be examples of how some employees respond to change.
If I get more paperwork out, start the day earlier and stay later, come in on weekends, maybe I’ll get to stay or keep my staff or this office.
Anxiety can be a stimulus initially but can eventually lead to a decline in focus on tasks and reduce motivation, energy and adaptability. Stress and its negative effects usually accompany this behaviour. It is instructive to note that absenteeism, medical claims, stress related claims all increase at times of significant organisational change (although there may be a few months lag time).
Living with the anxiety of the unknown associated with a change can create fears that taking risks and setting work goals too high or being too creative may result in displeasing the boss.
Goals are set low, creative approaches to problem solving are scarce, and no one wants to take any chances of looking bad.
Some people focus on ‘How does this affect me? What will happen to me?’ Transitions focus people back on themselves, which can undermine teamwork and increase competition for positions as well as undermine customer service. It is hard to take care of others when you are preoccupied with your own survival. Self-absorption can also undermine loyalty and commitment to the organisation.
It’s important to try to move through this stage as quickly as possible:
- Accept some temporary lack of motivation
- Talk to staff
- Reinforce the reasons for change and stress that the decision is not necessarily a reflection on the abilities of those involved. Rebuild confidence and self-esteem
- Recognise that this may not be the best time for creativity
- Provide counselling if necessary
I felt that I had been loyal to the institution and expected some loyalty in return. I felt isolated from the institution, not informed and not valued. I really feel that it could have been handled better. The worst aspect was the uncertainty.
This is a more positive stage. Staff have come to terms with the change and its personal affects. In the mind, the past always represents a better time and a regret for its passing is natural. The challenge is to ensure that staff don’t stay in the past and revert to old ways but engage actively in the new reality.
- Start communicating the future and set out the decisions to be taken
- Discuss new roles
- Set short-term goals that are achievable
- Be positive but realistic
- At this stage it can be useful to have a wake for the old ways – celebrating what was achieved and drawing a line under the past
I always acted in the best interests of my students. This was difficult at first but I have now become accustomed to my new role and new opportunities have opened up.
This stage is assisted by moving from short-term to long-term vision and building and embedding the new reality.
Don’t dwell on the past. This is the time to start enthusing about the future.
- Celebrate new successes
- Make sure everyone is clear about new roles
- Don’t expect a radical change overnight – major wounds take a while to heal
- Convert complaints to action
- Promote personal responsibility and accountability
- Delegate as much as possible where appropriate
- Model new behaviours
- Reduce the number of meetings relating specifically to change
- Document any new procedures
- Revise Job Descriptions and Performance Objectives