By Robin Brodrick
The Ultimate Guide to Dealing with Change in the Workplace
Heraclitus said it best when he said, “Change is the only constant in life.” No one disagrees with him, which is why it is surprising that so many people have not taken the time to learn more about how to handle change themselves, or how to help others cope with change.
The first step to learning how to deal with change is to figure out how well you currently manage it. The NYS & CSEA Partnership for Education and Training has a short self-assessment for dealing with change, which you can find below. There are no wrong answers, but it is imperative that you answer honestly.
Self-Assessment for Dealing with Change
Not at all: I do not implement these best practices.
Developing: I utilize some of these best practices or I have attempted to do so and/or am taking steps to incorporate them into my daily routine.
Proficient: I am strong in these best practices and have incorporated them into my daily work and personal life.
Natural Responses to Change
The Kübler-Ross model was originally developed to show the grieving process that people go through when a loved one dies or when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness. The same grief cycle occurs when when the status quo dies and people face any change that they perceive to be negative. The change could be as small as the company moving to a new office building, or as big as being laid off. Natural responses to change include denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance. Everyone goes through these stages. However, some people may move through them as quickly as they can think, while others may take days, weeks, or months to reach the acceptance stage. These behaviors are dysfunctional for individuals and for teams until the acceptance stage is reached. As such, employees who reach the acceptance stage quickly should take it upon themselves to help their struggling colleagues move through the phases so that acceptance can be achieved more quickly.
The Positive Change Curve
Not all changes are perceived as negative. People go through the positive change curve when they think a change is going to be exciting or beneficial.
In the uninformed optimism stage of positive change, an employee is enthusiastic about the change. They usually have an overly optimistic belief that the change will be easy and may even resolve many of their current problems. Some people refer to this as the ‘honeymoon period’. Individuals transition to the informed pessimism stage when the honeymoon period starts to fade and reality starts to set in. This occurs because the change cannot possibly live up to what the person has imagined. Even though the individual is no longer optimistic, this stage rarely reaches the depths of despair that were reviewed in the Kübler-Ross model. After a while, the person’s view becomes more realistic and then they start to realize that things are not really as bad as they thought they were. Eventually their optimism returns, although it is now slightly altered by the reality of the change. In the informed optimism stage, the employee starts to make realistic plans to move forward and embrace the change again. In the completion stage, things are starting to wind down and the person is usually more satisfied than they were prior to the change.
For example, say you found out that your company was moving to a new office location that is closer to your home and is in much better condition than your current office space. You will save on gas and get to enjoy a much nicer office than you have in your current building! A few weeks later, you find out that your office will not have any windows. You also realize that your favorite restaurant will no longer be right next door, and that you will not drive by the grocery store on your way home. Some of your colleagues have had similar realizations and you all get together for some water cooler talk to discuss what a negative change this is. The next month, your company holds an open house so that all employees can visit the new office, even though construction has not quite been completed. When you visit, you see that there is a lot of natural light in the building, the break room is fantastic, there is a LeanBox vending machine full of healthy food, and there are plenty of collaboration spaces to go to if you want to work and have a view at the same time. Your friend also told you about a product called Happy Light, which emulates sunlight. You bought one so that you will feel like the sun is shining in through your nonexistent window. You start to feel excited again and think that this move is not such a bad thing, after all. A few weeks later, the construction is completed, you enjoy your shorter commute to the office, and go about the day with a smile on your face. It is only a few weeks later that you realize you do not even miss having an office with windows and that there are actually unexpected benefits to leaving your office to work in the collaboration spaces that have windows.
How You Can Help Someone Who Is Struggling with Change
If a teammate is struggling with change (or if you yourself are struggling with change), there are specific actions that you can take to help them through the process.
- Have them write down exactly what their concerns are on a piece of paper. Then help them identify specific things that can be done to alleviate those concerns. (e.g. If they are concerned that the new office space will be loud because it has an open layout, you could get them a white noise machine, a pair of headphones and some classical music, or a pair of really good earplugs).
- Listen to your coworkers’ concerns. Sometimes people just need to feel like their voice is heard.
- Help them focus on the positive outcomes that the change will bring.
- If you are driving the change, be transparent about all of the details.
- Find ways to include your colleague in the decision making process so that they feel like they have some level of control over the change.
- Create a sense of community so that they feel like they are still supported.