Can you recall a time when you experienced a major change in your organization? Perhaps like others around you, you experienced a roller coaster of emotions: excitement that at long last something was going to happen to change the status quo, confusion about the specifics of the intended changes, and anxiety about what it could mean for you, your team, and even your family. Change can be disruptive, both professionally and personally. Change can affect the nature of our work, where we work, when we work, how we make decisions, and how we communicate. Change can impact our identity, our sense of belonging, and our relationships with coworkers, clients, and customers.
Emotional reactions to change are a normal reaction to the real and perceived disruption that accompanies organizational change. Successful change leaders know that understanding and addressing the mixed emotions that employees may experience can help employees feel motivated and committed to achieving their goals, implementing change, and realizing a new vision for the organization.
Emotions are psychological and biological responses that affect our minds, our bodies, and our motivation. Emotions colour our perception of events and influence how we make sense of the world around us. Emotions are useful. They help us evaluate the significance of events and assess the consequences. If people assess the consequences as beneficial, positive emotions result. If the consequences are perceived as potentially harmful, negative emotions may result. Barbara Fredrickson’s research on emotions helps us understand and appreciate the role of emotions. Negative emotions such as fear and anger narrow our focus, and limit how well we are able to be creative, interact with others, deal with complexity, and take risks. Positive emotions broaden our focus and enable us to interact with others, experiment with new things, and be creative.
Yet some organizations believe that expressing emotions should be actively discouraged. It can be tempting to interpret the mixed feelings that people express as resistance to change, and to view resistance as something negative, to be ‘dealt with.’ Employees may be expected to hide their emotions. Employees who feel the need to hide their emotions for fear of being labeled a ‘resistor’ may end up pretending to comply with intended changes.
Managers may be advised to keep supervisor-employee relationships task-oriented and unemotional, but is this the best strategy? Huy (2002) conducted a study of a large information technology company that was suddenly threatened by major global competition. Responding to this challenge necessitated a major restructuring over a three year period that involved a shift to a market-customization focus from a universal service focus, turnover of the executive team, changes in the organization structure, a 25% reduction in the workforce, elimination of seniority entitlements, and greater financial accountability. The chief operating officer, sensing potential negativity just as a change project was reaching a crucial mid-point, sent out a memo to all managers stating that any expression of cynicism about the change would not be tolerated. These managers were reminded that as they held leadership positions that they must display enthusiasm at all times. However, the middle managers who were most successful in managing change ignored this advice, and paid attention to the psychological well-being of company employees and their families. These managers encouraged their employees to express their emotions. Some managers held one-on-one meetings with employees, while others met with employees in small groups. Allowing employees to share stories—and feelings— helped them to develop a greater sense of control over the changes, improved morale, reduced absenteeism, and built trust between managers and employees.
Learning to address emotional reactions during change is crucial to individual, team, and organizational performance. The managers who did attend to the emotional reactions of employees during the change implementation achieved greater employee commitment to change, higher levels of customer service, fewer cost overruns for overtime, and shorter time to implementation compared to managers who did not attend to employees’ emotions or who did so after the changes took place.
Whether your role is leading a team, or supporting others to manage change successfully, here are five tips to help you and your team as you embark on your change initiatives.
1. Listen and legitimize. Accept that capable and committed people will experience confusion, anxiety, and doubt, as well as enthusiasm for the change. Don’t try to talk people out of their emotions. Make it safe for people to express their emotions. Provide safe opportunities for people to vent, one-on-one, and in small groups. Allow people to say goodbye to the past and cherish their memories. Provide support that enables people to move forward and embrace the future. Encourage thoughtful reflection on, and discussion of, the emotional dimension of work. When emotions are acknowledged, and people are treated with respect, people are more likely to engage with change.
2. Create hope for the future. Focus on the change vision and create a sense of hope for the future. In doing so, you can help people shift out of anxiety, and turn their concerns into curiosity. Conversations about possibilities can inspire positive emotions of excitement, confidence, team spirit, and a sense of accomplishment. Being open to new possibilities creates enthusiasm for what the future holds. Change requires a tremendous amount of energy. Sustaining change over the long term means tapping into the power of positive emotions.
3. Encourage employee voice. It’s a trap to dampen any negative feedback from people by insisting that everyone ‘be positive.’ Engaging employees in frank conversations about real and potential operational risks and problems can be very useful. Frontline employees may have deep insight into the technical and logistical challenges that lie ahead. Anticipating and identifying real and potential barriers before change is implemented enables people to engage in problem solving that could avert costly mistakes. Encouraging employees to share their ideas and their feelings builds commitment to interim goals and the longer range vision.
4. Maintain a sense of humour. Even during difficult times, maintaining a sense of humour can help both you and others to put things into perspective and avoid getting caught up in anger or anxiety.
5. Understand diverse perspectives. Empathizing with others helps us to understand different points of view and demonstrate caring. While we don’t necessarily need to agree with these different perspectives, we do need to understand and acknowledge them. Ask yourself, If this was happening to me, what would I want to happen? How would I like to be treated? Different groups in the organization may be reacting to change very differently. Different emotional needs must be recognized and addressed according to the situation.
People who are fully engaged at work contribute with their heads, hearts, and hands. Managers, team leaders, and human resources professionals who understand that emotional reactions to change can be anticipated and acknowledged are in a better position to harness the energy of emotions in productive ways. Organizations with healthy cultures that support emotional expression are more likely to build employee commitment to change and implement change successfully.
About the Author
Kate Sikerbol, M.Ed, MA, is a facilitator with the Queens IRC Change Management program and an organizational consultant and coach who has worked in business, industry, government, and higher education. As a scholar-practitioner she is interested bringing theory to practice, especially in the areas of organizational change and communication. Kate holds an Honours BA (Psychology) from the University of Western Ontario, a Master of Education from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Arts in Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University. She is currently completing her doctorate in Human and Organizational Systems at Fielding Graduate University.
Duck, Jeanie D. (1993). Managing change: The art of balancing. Harvard Business Review, November-December.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.
Huy, Q. N. (2002). Emotional balancing of organizational continuity and radical change: The contribution of middle managers. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47(03), 31-69.
Sala, F. (2003). Laughing all the way to the bank. Harvard Business Review, September.
Smollan, R. K. (2009). Organizational culture, organizational change, and emotions: A qualitative study. Journal of Change Management, 9(4), 435-457.