Navigating The Turbulent Waters of Change

It’s an indisputable fact that we are living in a time of unrelenting and seemingly ever accelerating change in nearly every aspect of our lives – how we work, how we communicate, social mores, technology, finances. The list goes on and on.

It’s also a fact that most of us do not really like change on any type of grand scale. Sure, a new car, new clothing, or a new home can be exciting. Of course, these are changes we choose to make. However, when we enter the realm of changes that are beyond our control – corporate mergers, reorganizations and downsizing – it’s a different matter.

To answer this question it is important to first understand that there is a predictable progression of emotional stages that we each go through when coping with change. Some of us might move through these stages more quickly than others but we all experience each of them to some degree.

  • Denial – “This can’t be happening!”
  • Resistance – “Well, it might happen but only over my dead body!”
  • Exploration – “Hmmm, this situation might offer some interesting possibilities!”
  • Commitment – “I’m feeling pretty good about this new situation!”

It’s interesting to note that this emotional process operates even when the change is something desirable. Think about the first thing you generally hear when someone wins the lottery…”this can’t really be happening!”

So, knowing that we move through these predictable stages, what are some strategies for managing ourselves and others through the process with minimal disruption to day-to-day business operations? This is where the old adage of the “carrot” and “stick” comes into play – either you must entice people with a compelling case regarding the positive results that will result from the change or you must coerce them into the change with fear (“the sky is falling!”) or intimidation (“embrace it or you’re fired!”).

Given that these times of rapid and radical change are already producing a healthy dose of fear and intimidation, you really have only one option at your disposal – positive reinforcement. So, what might that look like given the stages of change previously discussed?

  • Denial: The most powerful tool you have at your disposal is information. Frequently sharing as much as is feasible about the impetus/rationale for the change and future plans can go a long way toward reducing anxiety.
  • Resistance: Help people to let go by valuing the worth and good work of the past. None of us wants to feel that all of our past efforts were unappreciated and a waste of time and effort.
  • Exploration: Provide focus and concrete information about next steps and future possibilities. Helping others define a path for themselves can help reduce the sense of feeling overwhelmed by either the lack of or overabundance of options.
  • Commitment: Celebrate progress and successes both large and small. Reinforcing each positive forward movement helps to build a sense of momentum and sustains the change effort.

There is no magic bullet for completely alleviating the anxiety and fear that often accompanies major change events; however, deploying some relatively simple personal interventions can have a profound impact on maintaining productivity in these turbulent times.

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