Helping People Respond to Change
When I visited Benjamin, an IT director whose company had recently completed a colossal reorganization, he described some of the ways employees were responding to the change. Some were enthused and upbeat, which was the way Benjamin felt about it and the way he thought everyone else would respond. But many other employees were angry, bitter, or grumpy, and a few seemed to be dazed, as if they didn’t know what had hit them.
Benjamin seemed baffled by these many different responses to the reorganization, but he wasn’t alone. People at all levels of leadership, from team leader to CEO, sometimes assume—or maybe just blindly hope—that everyone will quickly accept a given change as the way things are now. But the chances of that happening are approximately zero.
Why do people respond differently to change? There are lots of possible reasons, such as differences in upbringing, life experiences, personality, job security, ability to learn new skills, and the fear of how a given change will affect them, to name just a few.
If you imagine the variations in receptiveness to change as reactions along a continuum, at one end are people who strenuously resist change. Their comfort level is doing things the same way today as they did them yesterday. These people latch onto what’s familiar, safe, and comfortable to the exclusion of what’s new, unfamiliar, and potentially risky. I once had a manager who fit this description. He was frustrating to work for because he didn’t think twice before turning down proposals for new projects, procedures, or ways to do our work.
At the other end of the continuum are people who thrive on change and relish uncertainty, ambiguity, and the unknown. These people can be trouble-makers because they sometimes create problems primarily to keep things lively. For these people, doing things the same old way is boring. Follow a routine? Forget it! An assistant vice president I once knew was like this. No one knew what to expect from him from day to day; he loved keeping everyone off balance and excelled at doing just that.
Most people, of course, are somewhere between these two extremes. But wherever people are on the continuum, significant change can pack a wallop. And significant change in this context means change that a particular individual or group experiences as significant, whether or not anyone else has the same reaction.
If you want to help employees adjust to change, start by anticipating variations in their response to it. Benjamin was puzzled by the many different responses to the company reorganization, but there’s no need for you to be similarly surprised. The next time you know about a change coming up, plan on the people you work with to react in different ways, and think about what you can do to help them adjust.