Encouraging Comfort with Change – The Challenge for Today’s Leader

Now there are two words that don’t belong together – comfort and change!  Authors O’Connor and Fiol, in a 2006 article titled ‘Handling Emotional Reactions to Change’, cite research that links common negatively viewed emotions to change: fear, insecurity, loss of control, separation or isolation, frustration, and anxiety.  Hardly sounds like the dictionary’s definition of ‘comfort’: ‘something that adds to one’s ease of living’, does it?

But here’s the conundrum for you as leaders today.  The environment itself is creating the same chaotic emotions.  No longer are they reserved for the distinct introductions of corporate change; they are being cited by employees today as specters in their day-to-day work lives.  The truth is that whether it’s intentional or not, your organizations are experiencing change on an unprecedented scale and volume, and the emotions accompanying change are tagging along.

One thing we know about living with these emotions is that they are damaging if constant.  They are meant to deal with emergencies, not with steady states.  They close down rational thought and innovation, and cause us to favor hunkered-down, automatic responses.  This is hardly what your organizations need in these times.  You want the maximum of reflective thinking about opportunities presented by the disrupted marketplace; you want optimal efforts at out-of-the-box partnerships; you want clear-headed decisions.

Your challenge as leaders today is to move yourself first, and your organization’s employees, to an ‘ease of living’ with change as a steady state.  How do you begin to generate greater comfort with an environment of change?

  • Extend the timeline:  We deal better with change incrementally than suddenly.  Language your messages about the organization’s need to change in evolutionary terms rather than radical terms.  Even knowing how fundamentally you may need to change, ask for the baby steps first, to build confidence.
  • Make the monolithic manageable:  Any time we don’t fully understand a change, it feels enormous and complex.  As your organization sees the big issues on the horizon, start breaking them down into pieces that can be discussed with confidence.  Instead of a monolithic discussion of how consumer preferences for online purchases might affect you, for example, review a specific product and generate ideas – and then generalize if appropriate.
  • Generate confidence:  The biggest factor in the emotions about change is lack of confidence in the ability to meet the challenges of change – ‘will I be successful?’.  Help people to see that they’ve been successful before in adapting to change; help them to explore what made them successful.  Analogies are useful; people have adapted to new spouses or the birth of a child or the death of a loved one.
  • Invite the itch:  Change management literature has placed a pejorative cast on resistance to change, but it is the most normal of reactions.  If you treat it as negative, it will go underground.  Ask for the questions and worries as input to exploration of the changes coming for the organization.  Acknowledge them formally, and offer responses as you’re best able.  Many will be “we don’t know yet, but we’ll keep you posted on what we do know as it emerges”.
  • Make it a participative sport:  Helping to create something makes it less scary.  Be as transparent as possible about what is happening in the environment that is driving change, and about what is being considered as options for addressing it.  Invite ideas.  Invite knowledge of customers’ desires, about competitors’ actions, about potential opportunities the changes might generate for the organization.  Ask for how to best implement changes to cause least disruption.
  • Create predictability:  If people know what’s coming, it alleviates anxiety.  Lay out a set of principles and a process for how the organization will deal with its changing environment.  Ask for input to these principles and process, based on what people need to know and feel part of.  Invite challenges if the principles or process are not followed.

What your employees really want from you is to create stability.  In these times, that is unrealistic – and intuitively, they know it.  What they will welcome from their leaders is relief from the damaging emotional effects of constant change.  They’re ready to work with you to find a place with greater ‘ease of living’.  They will appreciate the signal leadership of our time – creating comfort with a steady state of change.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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