Managing Change and the ‘E’ Word – Emotions
I like hearing about people who are looking for a place to live near their work. That’s just so… optimistic. Another symptom of optimism is New Year’s resolutions. It’s March and after three months is a pretty good time to step back and see how we’re tracking towards success with our New Year’s resolutions. (The other two best times are after an entire year and on January 2nd.) This annual process for many of us in our personal lives is curiously analogous to the more formal goal setting processes that occur in our workplaces. In our workplaces, we’re trying to increase sales by 3% or decrease costs by 5% or reduce staff turnover by half, whereas our personal goals might be to lose 10 kilograms. You don’t often see an employer come up with that kind of workplace weightloss goal. (Unless the goal is for the department to lose 95 kilograms and we call those kilograms ‘Barry.’)
What I like about New Year’s resolutions and workplace goal setting is that, regardless of how successful they turn out to be, they are, at the very least, an attempt to be proactive and take some degree of control rather than bounce around the random pinball machine that is the modern international economy. This perception of control or influence over our own futures is a fundamental human need. And I’m assuming that for most of you, most of your employees are some pretty fundamental humans.
Your human brain receives over eleven thousand signals from your senses every day. Of those, you’ll consciously process only about forty of them. The rest get dealt with by our good old and efficient subconscious. Our primal instincts prefer ‘same old same old.’ Sameness isn’t threatening. New things could be threatening. From a rational perspective, change, progress and innovation have no doubt been fantastic for the collective society but nevertheless the first thing our individual subconscious brains instinctively care about is not dying. It is old fashioned and emotional that way. Changes, which could contain potential threats, stimulate a physiological stress response, even if your suggested departmental reorganisation isn’t literally life-threatening. It takes time for us mere humans to work through and determine that the change may not only be unthreatening but potentially advantageous. Unfortunately while we’re still slaves to the feelings of stress caused by the emotional response to a perceived threat, the rational bits of our brain play second fiddle. This is normally occurring at the same time that leaders are explaining rationally why the change is happening. Sound familiar?
There’s the old and feeble joke that change is inevitable except from Council carpark payment machines. Change is constant and the pace of change is increasing. Look it up using your smartphone which was superseded about six weeks after you bought it. If change is perceived as external and happening to us then that contributes to a sense of powerlessness which increases feelings of helplessness and pessimism. Hardly conducive to a cooperative or productive workplace environment.
So often, leaders with change projects focus on the tasks – get prices, evaluate vendors, install hardware – and the steps that are people-oriented still tend to be about tasks – training for example. Early and often, these leaders of change need to plan and implement steps to help people deal with the natural cycle of emotional reaction to the prospect of change. Too many times I’ve asked managers how they’re dealing with how people are reacting to the change process and been answered, “Communication.” I ask how that’s going and get answered, “Its done,” accompanied by a wave of a printout of an email or three. One-way linear broadcast communication is not dealing with people’s emotional reaction to change and it never will be.
Nikolas Westerhoff’s recent article in ‘Scientific American’ cited research that shows that older people find it harder to change and deal with change due to brain chemistry. That’s disturbing but not as disturbing as them defining “older” as “over thirty.” Young people may be able to handle change but if you’ve ever witnessed them at a cash register, they struggle to make change. (OK, enough old-man defensiveness. Sorry kids.)
Another key step for leaders of change is to create a shared sense of urgency. Getting back to our New Year’s resolutions, losing weight because you ‘should’ is vague, unmotivating and unlikely to drive anyone to success. Losing weight to fit into a wedding dress by June (for some) could generate a sense of urgency. (Yes I am a guy and if I want to fit into a wedding dress, that’s my business. Don’t judge me – I’m over 30!)
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