Handling the Emotional Turmoil of Organizational Change
Chaos, confusion, and intense emotional turmoil are not unusual during major organizational change. Nevertheless, even people at the top sometimes minimize the likely impact of the change on employees—and on themselves. Worse, they sometimes do so dismissively.
In her book The Change Monster: The Human Forces that Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change, Jeanie Daniel Duck offers an excellent example of one such individual, a CEO facing an upcoming merger. It seems a consulting colleague tried to help the CEO anticipate and prepare for the turbulence and upheaval that would arise before and during the merger.
The consultant explained that employees would experience emotional ups and downs as a result of the merger. In particular, he pointed out, people who have been reliable and self-confident might face anxiety and doubt. Trusted advisors might become territorial and start clinging to their turf. People known for their loyalty might become disloyal. Conversely, employees who had never previously risen to a challenge might go above and beyond.
The consultant urged the CEO to expect the unexpected, not just from employees, but also from stressful, difficult-to-predict problems that might range from customer rebellion to natural disasters. He added that just as the employees would be tested, so too would the CEO himself, who would need extraordinary levels of energy and determination to make the merger succeed.
The CEO listened patiently to the list of warnings and predictions, and then remarked, with a hint of condescension, “I think we can handle it.”
I’m reminded of a friend’s three-year-old who, when her mother offered to help her put on a sweater, put up her hand, palm forward, and with all the wisdom of an adult, said, “I’ve got this!” Coming from a three-year-old, this response is precious. Not so much from a CEO who, despite evidence and guidance to the contrary, blithely believes “I’ve got this!”
You won’t be surprised to learn that the emotional turbulence the consultant had warned about came to pass, and it proved to be even more intense than had been suggested. Chaos reigned. The CEO, mired in his own emotional turmoil, accused the consultant of never explaining it could get this bad!
Fortunately, most organizational changes aren’t this extreme. But this story aptly captures the tendency to minimize the challenge of managing change. If you’re in charge of implementing major change, this CEO’s experience is a useful one to learn from.