How to ease the pain of change
Most of us have experienced a major change in our personal lives at some point. Moving house, starting a family, losing a loved one. People go through these universal experiences every day, but that doesn’t make them any less intense. Any big change involves an emotional journey. It can be painful. And this is equally true of professional change.
It’s often hard to keep perspective during times of change. But knowing there’s a natural cycle that we all go through helps. Understanding that cycle is the first step towards dealing with it. And, in a workplace scenario, this can help your team adapt more quickly and seamlessly to new circumstances.
Change and grief
In the 1960s, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed ‘the grief curve’ to model five stages of grief experienced by the dying and the bereaved. It’s a useful point of reference when dealing with change, helping to ensure that the emotional needs of employees are met.
There are many parallels between the process of change and grieving
Organisational change can result in personal ‘loss’ in relation to power, control and prestige. It can also create distance between colleagues who may have previously shared a sense a camaraderie. Ignoring or failing to identify this can make the change process traumatic for the individuals affected, which in turn reduces chances of success.
The five stages
Each stage of the Kübler-Ross grief curve can be applied to business change. People don’t necessarily move through the phases in a linear way. They may hop from one to another, move backwards and forwards, or remain in one state for a prolonged period.
When employees first learn about a planned change, they may simply pretend it isn’t happening. If the change requires them to adapt their role, this can be a real stumbling block. Communication is vital here, to ensure people understand why things need to change, and the benefits it will bring. Sharing as much information as possible, and addressing concerns openly and honestly, is the best way to overcome denial.
If people feel anxious, frustrated or irritated by the change, it can manifest itself in anger. This is usually rooted in fear, which becomes worse if there is a lack of clarity. Employees may talk among themselves and imagine worse case scenarios, such as redundancy or business closure. Sensitive handling of this phase helps avoid a chaotic situation where misinformation and rumour are rife. Clear and consistent communication can ensure this inevitable reaction doesn’t cause lasting problems.
Once the need for change is understood, employees may seek to strike a deal that reduces the impact on their day-to-day activities. Listening to ideas and feedback is essential, and some suggestions may be assimilated easily without compromising the change agenda. However, if it isn’t possible to accommodate the suggestions, it’s best to respond quickly, explaining why things have to be a certain way.
Getting used to new ways of working takes people out of their comfort zone. It’s hard to break old habits and everyday tasks may seem more laborious in the short term. Morale and energy can reach a low point here, with employees feeling helpless and unhappy about the new circumstances. A little bit of lateral thinking can reduce the pain. Finding ways to inject a little excitement into the training or occasional perks such as an early finish can lift people’s spirits and show them that they are valued. And sometimes just being there for them can make all the difference.
Slowly but surely, people accept – even embrace – the new situation. They understand the importance of the change and begin to feel empowered by it. Different people will reach this point at different times. Offering guidance and support throughout the process, while listening to people’s concerns with empathy and respect, will ensure more of the team reach this stage more quickly.
Listen twice, speak once
A cup of tea and sympathy won’t wipe all the challenges away. But understanding and responding to employees’ emotional journeys is a hallmark of effective change management. An open dialogue facilitates more seamless progress, enabling concerns to be voiced and addressed before they fester. We can’t promise that change will ever be pain-free. But well-managed, short-term pain is far more bearable and less disruptive than the alternative.