Embracing Change in the Workplace

Embracing change in the workplace can often be a difficult process for managers. This article provides some practical advice in how to deal with managing change and in particular understanding how change impacts on people, what stages they go through personally and how you can support them through the process.

One of the most difficult processes I found in my career was managing change and conflict – and embracing wasn’t really where my thinking was in my younger days. As humans we are often resistant to change, in our personal or work lives, and dealing with conflict is something we often want to avoid rather than address.  So in this article we’ll start with examining change in the workplace. In particular we’ll look at what your role could be in the change process, what stages people often go through when faced with change and how, as a manager, can you support them through this process.

What do I Need to do to Manage Change?

The honest answer is you manage it as you would anything else of a turbulent, complicated nature focussing more on leadership rather than just management skills. 

Therefore in embracing change in any workplace, you need to reconcile and resolve the conflict between and among disparate viewpoints. The real trick in managing change is to minimise the disruption individuals experience during periods of uncertainty. And a key tool for this is effective communication, through sharing and gaining people’s full buy-in and involvement in the change and dealing with issues before and after they arise.

Regarding communication, check out another one of our articles that looked at how communication is used in how we relate to people.

What is my Role in Managing Change?

There are two elements to consider. The first is the mechanics of implementing change and the second is managing individuals through change. Both of these are equally important to achieve success.

One approach to change management is based around forming a partnership, which involves a series of iterative steps and fosters positive relationships. In managing individuals through change there needs to be an awareness of how people react. One of the key challenges in achieving successful change is managing resistance from those who need to do things differently.

Individuals feel wary or scared about change and what it will mean for them. Most fears result from a loss of power and control over the job, uncertainty about what will happen or loss of the job itself.

Individuals typically go through an emotional cycle which is referred to as the transition curve.

What Stages do I Need to be Aware of?

The Fisher transition curve is made up of twelve unique stages that most people will go through in the change, in particular in the workplace – whether they are embracing that change or not. Some people will quickly move through one stage, almost as if skipping it out, and then may linger on the next stage for some time. Everyone will work through these stages at different speeds and deal with them in different ways. The seven steps of the Fisher model are discussed below.

1. Shock

The shock of the change can feel like being overwhelmed. The person’s current reality does not match what they have been used to and can lead to the question of “what am I doing here?”. In stage one, a person most often seeks information that helps them make sense of what is going on and why.

2. Denial

A person will often move onto stage two, denial. The behaviour demonstrated in this stage is coming from what they have been used to in the past. “This is how I did it before” will be a common statement. When these changes haven’t been required in the past, they will wonder why they are necessary now. This will be a time to communicate often and answer questions

3. Self-Doubt

From denial in stage two, we move to self-doubt, stage three. The reality of the change is becoming apparent and causing uncertainty. A sinking feeling rather than swimming is often described, with statements like “I’m not sure what to do” being typical. In this stage, your job is to minimise and mitigate problems that might arise to reduce the level of doubt.

4. Acceptance

People will often move from self-doubt in stage three to acceptance of the change in stage four. And a big part of this transition is the process of letting go of the past. Optimism for the future can often be seen from statements like “I can see where I was going wrong” or “I can see why the change is needed”. Allowing staff enough time to explore the change is essential to your success in bringing about their acceptance.

5. Testing

Moving on from acceptance to testing demonstrates staff have reached stage five, testing out the change. Trying out new behaviours with lots of activity and energy will help in this stage. Mistakes are liable to happen as people test how the change is implemented. Your role at stage five is to provide staff with training opportunities and time to practice.

6. Internalising

As people are testing how this change is being implemented, they internalise the change and move to stage six. Part of this internalising is people searching for the meaning of change and understanding why things are different. Your job in stage six is to support your staff as they embrace the change and grow in its acceptance.

7. Integration

Finally, we move to stage seven, integration. At this stage, staff are incorporating the meaning of the change into new behaviours, enabling them to stabilise and increase their self-esteem. At this point, team members will have greater confidence in their ability to cope with the change, knowing they have the knowledge and new skills to implement what is required.

What Else do I Need to Know About the Transition Curve?

When people become aware of a change, there is little concern or feeling as it does not yet appear or feel authentic. When the shock wears off, people will start going into denial and refuse to believe change will ever happen. As more detail is communicated, people will begin to worry about what it means for them and what will happen to their jobs.

Therefore as change progresses, there is more concern, and it is an unsettling time with doubt about the future. Once in the thick of change where the certainty is accepted, people feel at their lowest – depicted as the “valley of despair”.

When it feels like they can no longer stand being in the “valley of despair”, they start testing how the change will feel and what it means for them. This tends to lead to some association of personal meaning about the change and finally to integration.

How do I Support Others?

The skills required to support others and help them in the embracing of workplace change will generally fall under the headings of communication or interpersonal skills:

  • Be visible and approachable – ensure everyone understands the need for change, impact on them and the business and have opportunities to discuss and clarify;
  • Communicate – open and honest communication to understand individual’s concerns, thoughts, feelings and suggestions about the change;
  • Listen – actively listen, restate, reflect, clarify without interrogating, draw out concerns to get to specifics, channel discussion about planting ideas and developing them, and;
  • Motivate – energise and inspire individuals through the change, value and recognise contributions, and be involved in decisions and implementation.

Hints and Tips

Things to consider in gaining support for change:

  • Prepare the ground well in advance, communicate proposed changes;
  • Try to think of objections before they are raised and address them in advance;
  • Have regular briefings and discussions with groups and individuals;
  • Highlight the positive benefits to win support;
  • Once a change is implemented, continue to offer support;
  • Provide development and coaching opportunities; 
  • Show genuine appreciation for their work, and;
  • Be clear when the ‘old way’ is over and the ‘new way’ is to be embraced – there is often a period of overlap.

What Makes Change Successful?

Change is a way of life, nothing stands still in business, and we know that we are most successful in achieving change when:

  • There is clarity and common understanding of the change needs and impact; 
  • Change context and vision is commonly understood;
  • Emphasis is on action and reflection – not on planning; 
  • There is a sense of purpose and urgency created via unambiguous stretching targets; 
  • Freedom and responsibility to take action is given to people working on the change; 
  • Decisions are taken as close as possible to where the change impacts;
  • Meetings and processes are focussed towards enabling completion of the task, and;
  • An 80% solution is implemented using well defined and communicated processes.

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