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The Secret to Navigating Organizational Change

career & business leadership & impact Nov 30, 2019

Are you or your team struggling to adapt in this constantly shifting environment?

The world today is changing so quickly that it can be hard to keep up. Whether it’s a change in technology, the economy, competition, a change in your team or clients, or a change in your own life, the rapid pace of the change can be frustrating and overwhelming.

The research on organizational change management validates this struggle: 70% of changes fail to meet objectives, leading to a loss of resources and a miserable experience for everyone involved. What is the real reason that so many change programs fail?

A lot of programs out there are either delayed, missing out on objectives, or actually closed down due to a lack of attention to the human side of change. In other words, the single biggest challenge of any change program is getting people to adapt their behavior.

Why is it so hard to change?

Change can be uncomfortable, and people are biologically wired to resist anything that feels uncomfortable because their brain’s biggest job is to keep them safe. So, we must pay attention to people’s thoughts and emotions as they go through a transition to help them feel comfortable – at a conscious and subconscious level – to adapt their behavior.

Yet, many of today’s business leaders find it difficult to change employee behavior. Their goal is to create revenue and business impact, so they tend to focus on the bigger organizational benefits and not really on the things that people see. For example, they may communicate to their teams that the change initiative will accelerate sales, increase productivity, and so on. However, what the employees experience is a sense of uncertainty. There may be worried about potential role changes, their job security, possible team changes, etc.

So, there are actually two transitions going on at the same time – there is the bigger organizational change and there is also the personal change that individuals experience, which is much more focused on a change in responsibilities and all kinds of perceptions or beliefs related to loss and change. All change programs must take both transitions into account to best prepare people for change.

How can you prepare your people for change so they will be willing to adapt their behavior?

You must help your people to master the mental and emotional side of the change. Here are three things you need to know:

1. Thoughts and Emotions Matter

Think back to a time when your organization was going through a transition and you were required to adapt to that change. What emotions did you feel?

If you’re like most people, the idea of change triggers an emotional response. You may feel a sense of trepidation and anxiety, coupled with a sense of personal loss. You see, emotions matter because emotions trigger action. People are biologically wired to walk towards change when they are shown a compelling truth that influences their feelings.

No matter how amazing the proposed future state of the organization might be, people still value and emotionally identify with the current state. So, they must move through a process of change before they can mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally embrace the new future state of the organization.

For people to be willing to move through the process successfully, we must help them reframe their perceptions about the change. There are two mindsets that are most important for them to embrace so they can feel safe. The first mindset is that the change will be beneficial for them and the second mindset is that they can adapt to the change.

In other words, if people perceive that a change will somehow harm their career or well-being, or if on some level they believe that they are not capable of adapting to this change, they will resist the change and ultimately go back to their old patterns of behavior. So, your employees’ mindset matters.

2. Communication is Key

Recognizing the work of Dr. Kubler-Ross, here are some simple ideas on how to effectively support and communicate with your employees during each phase of the change process:

1. Shock: When people are first confronted with unexpected change, they experience a type of “mental paralysis”. It is important to help employees understand what they are expected to change and why it is beneficial for them to do so. The key is to foster conviction.

2. Denial: Denial is very real when it comes to change, even though you might not even realize that you’re in it. People experience this by checking out or clinging to the ‘way things used to be’. Help people move through this step by chunking down the change into a number of manageable steps.

3. Anger: It is important to acknowledge the anger or frustration that people experience, and to defuse it by giving them an opportunity to express their emotions (e.g., by holding one-on-one meetings or allowing them to share feedback in a confidential way).

4. Negotiation: People sometimes try to negotiate their new roles or responsibilities. Remind them of the short or long-term benefits of the change program for them.

5. Depression: When people realize that they must accept the change, it can lead to intense sadness. Encourage employees to express how they feel with their peers, managers, or with you.

6. Exploration: At this stage, employees are more open to explore future possibilities. Take the time to acknowledge their cooperation. Offer training to support them through the transition.

7. Acceptance: People accept change when they believe that they can adapt to the change and that it is beneficial for them. Take the time to build their confidence by praising their effort to adapt to the change.

Everyone goes through the phases of the transition, even though they may express their thoughts and emotions differently. So, it is important for leaders to understand the stages of change and to support their people through the transition. This does not mean that we need to treat people like children or run therapy groups, but it does mean that we must listen to and acknowledge how people feel and offer appropriate communication, support structures, and training to help them feel safe as they navigate the change process.

3. Transformative Change Requires Energy

If you were going on a road trip, I imagine you would take the time to fill up your gas tank. The same concept applies when it comes to organizational change. The more energy you have, the further you can go. Building a reservoir of emotional resilience will give you and your team the confidence and energy needed to make it through any stressful situation or setbacks along your change journey.

When people feel resistant to change, their energy gets depleted. This can manifest in lower productivity, lack of focus, team issues. slower learning, errors, or even health problems.

To get through these tough times, we need to build up our resilience capacity.

Developing a more resilient workforce is critical to the success of your change program because it helps reduce the emotional and physical impact of the transition. Research shows that daily stressors such as time pressures, overload, financial pressures, and unexpected changes have a cumulative effect that leads into resilience depletion where people feel completely drained and do not have sufficient energy to adapt to change. Also, when we are in a depleted state, we tend to be more edgy, which can lead to extra drama and even more drain.

A great example of being resilient is that of a bamboo tree. Did you know that bamboo trees can be bent without breaking? They have an amazing way of bouncing back after storms and other natural conditions. That is exactly what happens when people build up their internal resilience. They are able to maintain flexibility and balance, like a bamboo tree, regardless of what happens in their external, rapidly changing, environment.

To help your employees develop their personal resilience level, give them the skills to manage their feelings by helping them become aware of the things that trigger them and techniques to manage their emotional state.

Training people to be more resilient can have a dramatic effect on your organization’s ability to be agile. The workshops that I deliver on The Resilience Advantage by HeartMath have been offered at companies such as Shell, BP, Unilever, Cisco, Boeing and other organizations and the results are transformational. For example, after only 6 weeks, data showed a significant positive shift in teamwork, productivity, empowerment, and health, while feelings of tension and stress decreased.

Change can be a transformative force for your business. Commit to building a more resilient and agile workforce so that you can beat the odds and thrive in the midst of change.

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