The psychology of leading change

In Leadership

By Maura Fay Learning

So much of our lives is the product of habit. No wonder we don’t easily welcome change. How can we, when we derive our sense of safety from the things that are familiar. The things we know: whether it’s people, or places, or routines, give us the ability to predict our future even in small ways, and help us to feel we are in control of our own personal slice of the world.
So why do we expect other people to absorb changes without missing a beat? In organisations, in personal and family life, a major change is not as easily dealt with as we might hope. Even change managers, who are trained in the human condition and its response to change, are often frustrated by the size, direction or speed of people’s response.

Major changes in life or work can have profound effects on people’s outlook, demeanour and behaviour. Various writers have presented change as a journey, including Claes Janssen in his metaphor of the 4-Roomed Apartment. Janssen shows that we respond to change by moving through a sequence of stages or “rooms”: Contentment, Denial, Confusion and then Renewal. In each “room” we have different attitudes, behaviours and requirements to enable us to continue the journey onto the next room. And each room has a balcony or ante-room that we can “fall into”, with Harry Potter-esque names like “the Dungeon of Denial” and “Pit of Paralysis”, where we can be caught: immobilised, unable to progress along the change-journey to the next room.

As we journey through the four rooms, the stages we encounter not only affect our psychological state, attitude and behaviour. They also have an effect on our productivity, which tends to drop markedly as a change occurs; as people go from feeling secure and competent, to insecurity and more frequent failures. Notably, the drop in productivity is less marked in a situation where the change is seen as positive, planned and within the control of the person experiencing it.

Think about any big personal changes that you have chosen to instigate in your life: e.g. marriage, emigrating, having a child, starting a new career. These are big changes – yet we handle them most easily if we have chosen, planned and felt in control of the change. Compare that with changes that we had no say in, no choice over. Our attitude is more positive, we cope better with frustration, and our productivity loss is milder.
Most organisations are in the position where they implement change regularly. How strongly change impacts the engagement and the productivity of the staff, can be influenced by leveraging the items above. Often organisational change does not feel positive to those at the coalface (just sayin’), and gives no individuals no sense that they have choice or input or control. How can change leaders emulate these positive influences? By encouraging a positive view on the change, involving staff in the planning and sharing decision-making around the change.

Change leaders unite, and refocus your efforts: if you want us mere mortals to cope better with change, don’t give us what you would need, give us what we actually need. For us to view a change as a positive, we need to see the benefits: a clear vision that we subscribe to of the post-change “utopia”. Paint us a picture, don’t tell us a story. Benefits to us, from our point of view, not from yours.

And create a sense of involvement and empowerment. Consult widely, enable input, encourage constructive and open dissent. Give us the time to take the journey, to explore and resolve our issues. Communicating the change, frequently and in detail: the why, the what, the who, the how is important. But the next level up of consultation, allowing two-way communication, consulting and discussing in detail; that will help us to feel that we have some input, some sense of influence, some part in controlling the process.

Change is intrinsically necessary for growth, but with a bit of forethought and insight we can minimise the growing pains through better communication.

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