A phrase heard at many organizations is, “The only constant is change.” Reorganizations, restructurings, and layoffs have become a regular event. These events reshape the work-landscape at the individual and team level:
- Friends and colleagues may move to other groups within the company or leave;
- You may have a new management team with whom you need to build rapport and trust; and
- Routine business processes are disrupted as people move into new roles.
The announcement of the change is only the beginning of a much longer process. After people move into their new roles and teams, the adjustment process begins. This process may take months or years to complete and for the intended benefits to be realized.
Bruce Tuckman’s Model of group development (e.g. forming, storming, norming and performing) and John Kotter’s work on change management are often taught in business schools or project management classes. These models generally present change from a management perspective. For those that experience an organizational change, it is helpful to understand how they are personally affected. This article is intended to provides a perspective on coping with organizational change.
Understanding Our Natural Reactions
Research on cognitive behavior by the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, describes System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 thinking is fast, intuitive, and delivers answers quickly. System 2 is slow, analytical, deliberative, and physically taxing.
When confronted with organizational change, our System 1 thinking engages first. We respond with quick, emotional reactions. Our natural flight-or-fight response is triggered. Consequently, we are likely respond to the change with feelings of fear, anger, or both.
Our natural, behavioral types also predispose us to being “change oriented” or “continuation oriented.” The DISC Behavioral Model measures our underlying tendencies: People with high-assertive scores (high D’s and I’s) will tend to be more open to the change, while those with high-responsive scores will be more cautious (high S’s and C’s).
These reactions are neither good nor bad. They do not represent acceptance or rejection of the change. Rather, they represent our natural, biological reactions and our predisposed responses.
Our immediate response to change is beyond our cognitive control. We don’t analytically assess the implications. We react. With this insight, we can engage our System 2 thinking and begin the process of thoughtfully examining the situation.
Identifying Data, Feelings, & Judgments
Metacognition is the process of thinking about what we think. Recognizing that our initial response is primarily emotional, we can begin the process to understand our responses. This process is sometimes called “bucketing” because it helps us separate data from our feelings and judgments.
Data are observable events—things we have seen or heard. Feelings describe are our emotional response—mad, glad, sad, afraid, and ashamed. Judgments are how we assess the situation, ourselves, or others based on our feelings.
- Data: There was a reorganization. My friend left the company a day later.
- Feeling: I am sad that I will not be working with my friend. I am afraid that I may lose my job.
- Judgment: I need to find a new job.
Separating data, feelings, and judgments allows us to process and understand events using our logical brains. In this example, we leapt to the judgment that we needed to find a new job. Perhaps our friend’s departure was unrelated to the reorganization? Or, this provided our friend with a better opportunity?
In his book on organizational culture, Under the Hood, Stan Slap tells the story of how Progressive Insurance handled a reduction in force by asking for volunteers. Hundreds of people accepted the severance package and used this as an opportunity to make long-awaited life change, such as returning to school or starting their own business.
If we create the space to unpack our feelings, we can engage our System 2 thinking to assess events with an analytic eye. This may lead us to different conclusions. Unchecked, our judgments might lead to unproductive behaviors or unintended consequences. In the above example, we may realize that we don’t really need to look for a new job.
Avoid Making Assumptions
During the team formation stage, we often make assumptions about our new manager and colleagues with limited or no supporting data. For example, we might like Joe because we have a mutual friend, or we don’t like Sally because we once had a confrontation with her old manager.
Our brain uses pattern recognition and assumptions to simplify our understanding of complex situations. In this case, helping to identify perceived friends and foes. These judgments are also part of our natural responses.
When forming as a new team, we have the opportunity to start relationship with a fresh perspective. Rather than prejudging our new colleagues, we should assume positive intent. In other words, the new people in our work-lives share our same goals and aspirations. Disengaging our natural inclinations to judge our colleagues helps accelerate the team formation process.
Allow Time for Grieving
Reorganizations disrupt our work environment and relationships. Even people not directly impacted are often affected. It is important to recognize that our colleagues may be experiencing loss and are grieving.
Grieving may present itself in different ways. Some people may disengage. Others may become temperamental—displaying anger or frustration.
Don't judge this new behavior as a rejection of the change or a performance issue. Instead have a conversation about the observed behavior and its impact on the team. Be prepared to have an open a dialogue about how the person is feeling.
Understanding our natural tendencies and constructively dealing with our feelings, and those of our colleagues, will help speed the transition process.
Change is a known constant. Embrace the change. Look for new opportunities. Make new friends. Build new relationships.
Hill, M. (2016, January 26). Exploring The Shadow. Retrieved March 24, 2017, from https://exploringtheshadow.co.uk/tag/effective-communication/
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, fast and slow. Toronto: Anchor Canada.
Kotter, J. P., Abrahamson, E., Lahey, R. K., Nohria, M. B., & Linsky, R. H. (2015, August 25). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Retrieved March 14, 2017, from https://hbr.org/2007/01/leading-change-why-transformation-efforts-fail
Slap, S. (2015). Under the hood fire up and fine-tune your employee culture. Retrieved March 14, 2017, from https://books.google.com/books
Strobel, B. (2015). Leading Change from Within A Road Map to Help Middle Managers Affect Lasting Change. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books
Tuckman's stages of group development. (2017, March 08). Retrieved March 14, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuckman%27s_stages_of_group_development
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