Something to Remember When Managing Change at Work
Shock, anger, distress—these were the reactions among employees when senior management at a company where I once worked announced that we would be switching to a new technology platform. We’d spent years with the existing platform and were professionally and emotionally invested in it, but now we faced a massive conversion effort and a new way of doing nearly everything.
To kick off the transition, management invited Ross, a vendor whose company represented the new platform, to give us an overview. Ross came charging in, overflowing with enthusiasm about “his” platform.
He described its capabilities and regaled us with examples of how much better it was than our current platform. We became increasingly irate at his conviction that “his way” was better. Unfazed by our discontent, he continued to gush.
Ross didn’t understand that change entails loss. As a result, he was oblivious to the fact that we were grieving over what we were about to lose. That’s a mistake many people make in managing change.
Grieving is a process usually associated with the loss of a loved one, but it’s equally relevant to loss triggered by changes in the workplace, such as the loss of expertise, communication channels, friends who are transferred, sense of purpose, and familiar ways of doing work. Managing change means managing fear, and those experiencing change-induced loss can be especially fearful.
Giving up almost anything you cherish is a form of loss, whether you give it up voluntarily or, as in our case, involuntarily. Therefore, if you are introducing or overseeing a change, it’s a mistake to belittle people’s reaction to the loss or excessively tout the benefits of the new way. And it’s a mistake to focus entirely on what’s being changed and to ignore the people affected by the change.
For example, Ross might have provoked less anger among us if he had acknowledged that many of us were distressed by the change. He could have empathized with the fact that we were giving up something that was part of who we were.
To demonstrate that he understood, he might have offered an experience in which he’d had to give up something he cherished. And a little praise for our current platform might have taken the edge off our angry reaction and led us to listen to information that, like it or not, we were going to need.
Ross wasn’t responsible for our negativity about the change we were facing. But by displaying respect for what we were experiencing, he might have triggered less hostility and helped us move toward acceptance of this change.