We live in a world that is constantly changing and obviously, our work also changes. Changes can be quick or slow, planned or surprising, positive or negative, or any mix of those. Some of them are the result of our own choices and some come to us, with or without warning. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say that “people resist change”.
Well, that’s not a myth. People do resist change. Why? Because changes challenge the status quo and take us outside the comfort zone we have grown used to. The old is familiar, safe, easy and comfortable while the new is something unknown, outside our routines and will probably require learning new things or doing things differently. Even the positive changes we bring upon ourselves, like starting a new job, moving to a different place or adding a new member to the family can cause a substantial amount of resistance within our own head. That should be enough of a hint that changes coming from the outside cause even more stress and resistance.
The thing is, it’s not only about changing routines, behaviors and actions - a large part of dealing with changes is dealing with the emotions associated with them. If you think about a recent major change in your work setting, which questions did you ask during the process? I am willing to bet that some of your questions were among the typical ones that people ask: How does this affect me? Will my skills be valued in the new situation? Will I lose my team or contacts? How do I build a new network? Do I have what it takes? What does this mean for my long term plans? Under these questions there is often worry, fear, anxiety and perhaps even disappointment or anger if the changes entail something that one does not agree with. Or course, you might also be asking questions like “Is this the chance I’ve been waiting for to prove myself?” and getting excited about the new prospects the changes bring or a welcome transition from what has been.
So it’s a mix of emotions, and people differ in their capability and willingness to take on changes. Some get bored easily and embrace anything new just because it’s new, while others require more stability to maintain a reasonable stress level. Previous experiences with changes also affect how we react to new ones. Obviously, this can create tensions in organizations where all these different individuals work together. Resistance to change can be expressed in different ways, from clear signs like loud protesting to more subtle signs that can be harder to spot. Tell-tale signs can be an increased number of absences, conflicts, a slower pace of working, withdrawal, postponing important discussions and decisions or a sudden inclination to adhere to old ways of doing things “because they are better”.
So if you’re someone affected by a change at work…
Take the time to think about the situation. It’s perfectly normal and actually expected that there will be some kind of reaction to a major change in something as significant as your work. Ask yourself: What am I actually thinking and feeling about these changes? Listen to yourself and be honest. What is it you wouldn’t want to give up and what do you look forward to in the new situation? What is actually changing? What remains the same? Which choices are available to me? Do I need help or support from someone? Allowing yourself to stop to think will help you decide what to do next.
When you’re at work, try to steer the discussion from what used to be or what should have been to goals and planning of what is to come. Stay focused on work and take into account that the others may not be going through the same thoughts or feelings regarding the change, and they may be different from you in their way of dealing with changes in general. Don’t spread rumors or speculations, try to bring in objective facts and suggest solutions to perceived problems.
And if you’re someone who’s planning a change that affects others…
Take into account that you’re in a privileged position in that you know what’s going to happen (at least sort of) and why. One of the common problems is that while upper management has had time to plan, discuss, debate, iterate and come to terms with the changes, the people affected at a later stage have not had this chance. Another issue is that even a change that is highly technical or organizational in nature is not viewed as technical or organizational by the people affected - they will react based on their perception of how they will be affected, and based on the emotions mentioned above. Ask people what it is about the changes that they are worried about and what they see as possible positive outcomes. Give people chances to talk and make sure they know their thoughts are valued. Even if there are no real possibilities to influence the outcome, the feeling of being listened to helps in beating much of the resistance.
And even if no changes are planned right now…
It is often true that whatever the qualities of management and leadership in a work unit or organization, good or bad or in between, those same qualities will also be expressed in situations of change. If the natural way of interacting with others at the workplace is respectful and professional, there is a good chance that it will stay that way. However, if there are already problems with communication and cooperation, those difficulties are likely to be intensified by changes. So even if there are no significant changes planned right now, invest in creating a professional and respectful culture where discussion, debate and questions are encouraged - it will pay off later. And never, ever underestimate the power of information and communication - what people do not know, they will speculate on and in a group, gaps of information will be filled with something. Try to make sure that something is what you want them to know, instead of rumors or unfounded fears. Be prepared to explain things multiple times and be sure to listen to even the loudest critics - sometimes they actually have a point, even though they may just seem like they’re “resisting change”.
About Mari Järvinen
I’m a psychologist (MSc), currently specialising in work and organisational psychology. For 10 years, I’ve been working with the most intriguing, complex and varied workplace issues you can ever imagine. All the good things: work engagement, flow, innovation, creativity, leadership, teamwork...but also the dark side: conflicts, problems, stress, incivility and even bullying.
Currently I’m living in Amsterdam and getting immersed in the wonderful, innovative and exciting world of startups - learning about them and also volunteering to help great businesses grow and avoid some of the pitfalls along the way. Writing this blog is a part of my collaboration with Coachademy, who were kind enough to invite me to work at their office for a few hours per week. I will cover different topics depending on what pops into my mind, so let me know if there are specific topics you would like me to write about! I hope you enjoy reading it!