How people respond to change

Change is the only constant in our lives. This quote gets dragged out every time your manager announces a new policy, restructure or redundancy programme. It’s no good digging your head in the sand – change is inevitable. Every leader today needs to manage change effectively as part of their job. Understanding how people respond to change is a critical aspect of this.

What are the things you need to know about people and change? Firstly, different people react differently to change. Some people relish change and get bored with the status quo. Others prefer more stability. Problems arise when the individual’s preferences differ from the situation they find themselves in. That is, if a stability oriented person finds that circumstances are changing or a change oriented person finds that everything is the same and there is nothing new.

Typical reactions may be stress, negativity or resistance to the change. The best response from the manager is to explain the reasoning behind the change ‘ put the change in context ‘ and be patient. In times of extreme change managers might want to identify opportunities to pair up change lovers with more stable oriented folk to jolly them through the tough times.

Secondly, people need to be included in the change process. A famous psychologist Will Shutz identified three needs people have which are relevant to change:

– The need for control
– The need for inclusion
– The need for openness

This means that in any change process there has to be something the individual can control, they need to be included in the process of shaping the change and they need to feel their managers are being as open as they can about the change.

Thirdly, during periods of change people can often experience a feeling of loss and it might take time for them to adjust to new circumstances. It might be useful to consider the following model which is used to counsel people in helping them come to terms with loss:

– Denial
– Anger
– Withdrawal
– Acceptance

Some people may move through these stages very quickly, arriving at the acceptance stage within days of an announcement of change. For others, it may take months to accept the new set up. For the manager, provide opportunities for individuals to share their concerns and learn to be patient as employees take time to work through the change for themselves. But remember, acceptance does not necessarily mean loving or agreeing with the change.

Finally, enforced change, such as an office move, can lead to raised expectations. With the office move, individuals may see an opportunity for a bright, new shiny office with lots of space. Manage expectations carefully through change, otherwise people are bound to be disappointed. If expectations are not met, people are unhappy. If expectations are exceeded, they are happy. Manage expectations down.

Understanding how people typically respond will help the change manager with planning the inevitable change which all organisations experience. Based on this understanding managers need to:

Communicate the reasons behind the change ‘ be honest and open but don’t oversell the benefits.
Give individuals opportunities to share their concerns and provide reassurances.
Make lots of time for informal discussions, feedbacks and ‘water cooler’ chat
Give people some choices to make so they feel in control and included

Copyright (c) 2007 Chiswick Consulting Limited