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Managing Workplace Change: Get Your Team to Stop Assuming the Worst

Sarah Schott •  November 4, 2015 | Business and Careers

SchottbWhenever we find ourselves facing change—whether it’s in our personal or professional lives—it’s human nature to assume the worst possible outcome before the change even happens. “What if this new thing is worse than what I have right now? What if I can’t adjust? What if I’m not good at it or make a mistake?” Psychologists have a word for this tendency to overestimate negative consequences: “awfulizing.” 

In my company we’re working to prevent awfulizing when implementing change. Our goal is to turn the emotions associated with change—which are often negative—into feelings that are positive, and we’re doing so by focusing on three things:

1. Delivering the “why.” One of our objectives is to help people shift their focus away from what they have to lose when making a change to what they have to gain. And that’s often accomplished by delivering the why. We need to answer the questions “What’s in it for me?” and “What’s in it for the company?” when communicating the need to change. Will the change eliminate unnecessary work? Open career opportunities? Increase profitability? Make it possible to grow the business? How?

Your team will need to hear about the why until the change you seek takes hold. A few years ago when our company changed its department structure, we thought we messaged really well as an organization about why we needed to make the change. But within a few months, we realized that expectations of team members were not fully clear, engagement was lagging, and efficiency wasn’t what we hoped. Looking back, we wish we’d continued to talk about the why even after the change was made. Just saying it once or twice at the beginning wasn’t enough to keep people motivated and aligned throughout the process. 

2. Listening. Very few people will change their minds simply because someone gets up at a podium and tells them to think or work differently. People change their minds when they feel heard. They need to believe their opinions matter. So when communicating the need for change, we need to listen by soliciting ideas, implementing that feedback where appropriate and letting people know how their feedback influenced the approach. 

3. Recognizing the stages of acceptance. Change isn’t accepted overnight. Just as there are stages of grief, there are stages of acceptance of change: awareness of the need, desire to participate, knowledge of what change looks like, ability to implement on a daily basis and reinforcement to keep the change in place. 

Not everyone progresses through the stages at the same pace, and that’s okay. It’s also not uncommon for people to backslide through the stages of change. For these reasons, we need to regularly reinforce the why and recognize successes along the way so people will stay energized and the change can be sustained. 

All of this is made easier when change takes place within a culture that’s grounded in trust. When we trust the people around us, we assume they have good intentions. We’re also more willing to take risk in a trusting environment, which is an essential part of implementing change. In my workplace, I want to hear people say, “I’m not sure how this is going to work out, but let’s experiment and learn something. I trust that the leadership around me will support me because we’re all aiming for the same thing. So let’s give it a try.”  

Isn’t that more productive (and more exciting) than fearing the worst? 

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