Research has shown that many change processes fail to meet their initial objectives. Whilst some of this may be attributable to unrealistic goals or a lack of planning, often a failure to deal with the people issues is a big contributing factor.
Organisations implementing change must ensure they help navigate their employees through the process as painlessly as possible. I use the word painlessly deliberately because emotions play a key part in how people react to change.
Each emotion has a purpose. They prepare people to deal with situations and take action and so fundamentally they are about our survival.
Emotions don’t however ensure that people take that action. That is something that they may need help with. In organisations, if the change leaders understand and pay attention to the purpose of each of the key emotions, then they can help people to deal with the difficulties that change may throw up. By key emotions I mean sadness, anger and fear.
When we lose something important we experience sadness. The purpose of sadness is to slow us down so that we can process the loss and solve the problems associated with this. It also helps to signal to others that we are vulnerable and may need support. We might ask ourselves questions such as;
- What does this loss mean for me?
- Why did this happen (what can I learn from this)?
- What support do I need to help me deal with this situation?
- How will I manage now things are different?
Loss is an important part of dealing with change – Change leaders need to support people and be patient to allow them time to take in the information they are being given. Outlining what will remain the same as well as giving clear and concise information about the objectives and key elements of the change will be important. Providing ways in which people can support each other and helping people managers to support their teams will also help.
When we are under threat we need the energy to get ourselves out of the situation. The fight – flight response is part of this as our bodies gear up to face the real or perceived threat. Change is a threat therefore it is natural for people to feel anger.
Anger is the emotion that gives people the energy to problem-solve and the motivation to take action. As we are social animals part of dealing with a threat is to try and influence the other people we believe are part of that threat. We may challenge them but not always in a constructive way. However, if we can express this anger and be listened to our anger is more likely to dissipate quickly. If we don’t feel our anger is acknowledged, then it is more likely to linger.
Allowing people to vent and to challenge in a managed way and making sure lines of communication are kept open are important aspects of helping people to move through their anger.
Fear is the emotion associated with the future. Fear enables us to look ahead to see how we can maintain our security. Fear prepares us to take action. This may involve taking time to stop and think or it may mean that we act immediately. If we think for too long, then we may get stuck in the fear and not move forward. Whilst fear is a natural emotion, it can also be a conditioned response. Some people develop fears which become magnified until they interfere disproportionately in people’s lives. If people have had a bad experience of something in the past, they may fear it more in the future.
Providing information and support early on and helping people to plan for the future, whatever that might look like are key ways in which change leaders can minimise the effects of fear.
Understanding the role of emotions and supporting people in working through these, rather than ignoring them will help to bring people through a change process and beyond and maybe will mean that fewer change processes will fail.