Navigating Turbulent Waters of Change

Navigating Turbulent Waters of ChangeFor most people, change means confusion and anxiety.  Be it takeover whispers in corporate corridors, financial plans that get obliterated in an economic downturn or a relationship that promised much but delivered little – change is difficult.

Some greet this uncertainty by pulling metaphoric covers over their heads hoping that after the storm, they can venture out to resume life as they knew it.

Some, due to foresight and planning, have greater assurance knowing they have done their best to insulate themselves from the worst of the damage.  However, despite best efforts, occasionally change comes in like a flood destroying even best prevention attempts.

Admittedly, not everyone greets change with foreboding.  Some even thrive in a constantly re-ordered world.  Workers in the technology industry know that they embrace change or die.  Employees in job fields like these typically are energized by possibility.  Restrict them to a rigid, inflexible world and they dissolve like a snowman under an Arizona sun.

Where we would be if our world were entirely populated by individuals who fatalistically accepted life events as the final declaration of how things are to be?  Without the contributions of those fueled by creative personalities and a quest for discovery, we would be shortchanged on so many levels.

Navigating Resistant Responses to Change

While acknowledging that some are quick and desirous to embrace change, many find it difficult.  Their change resistance isn’t due to an unwillingness to embrace the future rather it is a result of an understandable struggle to release the past.

Orchestrators of change, in their rush to the future, can unintentionally trample on the past.  In order to get people to move ahead, contributions of those who have gone before can be devalued and sometimes dismissed.  This ‘damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead’ approach may resonate with a few but their numbers shouldn’t be overestimated.  Those pulling the trigger of change are often surrounded by perspectives that minimize connections to the past, so when change is announced, they get blindsided by the emotional resistance.

When a devaluing attitude begins to characterize the workplace, employees are left wondering how their previous contributions will now be regarded.  How long will it be before they are swept aside?  What does this apparent disregard mean for their future?  Such wonderments result in insecurity and decreased loyalty.  Why should people be loyal when it appears this currency is only cashed in one direction?

No matter how articulately a rationale can be presented for changes ahead, there will be a good many who are unable to hear these pronouncements.

They can’t make sense of what may be reasonable arguments for change because the issue is emotional not logical.

The dominant reality is that change means loss.  Depending on the investment people have in what is being taken away, people commonly experience many of the emotions associated with grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  These emotions often underlie questions such as:

Have their contributions been for nothing?

What are the implications for what is ahead?

Have they / will they be deemed obsolete in this new configuration?

Despite what the change makers promised, will proposed changes result in a loss of power or status – positional? emotional? relational?

Have they been denied access to people and processes that used to be open and invitational?

How will they function in what is coming?

What Change Makers Too Easily Forget

Change makers often overlook that they have been processing the pros and cons of change for some time.  When they finally deliver the change plan to others, they are acting after long hours of deliberation.

Recipients do not have the benefit of deliberation and input.  While change makers took time to order their world in a processed way, recipients are told to immediately adjust even as their world is being turned upside down.

Prior to this, they operated with feelings of competence and contribution.  Now all is uncertain.

Navigational Reference Points for More Effective Change

So as the messenger of change, what navigational reference points can be utilized to assist the change process?

•  Treat the past with respect.  Remember most reactions to change will be emotional so go light on the rhetoric, sparing lengthy justifications for why you needed to take the action you did.  The time may come when a more thorough rationale will be needed but at the beginning, frame change message around key issues.   (a significant exception – if those addressed operate in a world of facts, data, and structure, much greater emphasis needs to be given to the factors leading to the decision.)  State what needs to be stated – authentically yet succinctly.

•  Be prepared for anger.  The expression of intense emotion often catches leaders by surprise.  Be careful not to over-react to things you hear or see as well be careful not to slip into the mindset that this first rush of emotion will be addressed by providing more information.  It is easy to villainize some people whose emotions lie close to the surface but you are wise to give them space.  Many will come around.  The proverb states it well, “The one who speaks before listening, it is a folly and shame to him.”  So listen!

Whenever possible deliver the first news in simultaneous, smaller groupings rather than a large collective.  This approach minimizes the likelihood of few people’s response toxifying the whole environment.  One caution – be certain that each group is given consistent information in order to prevent belief that some have been selected for specialized information.

•  Be very careful not to disparage what has happened in the past.  Such negativity will come back to damage and haunt.  An attitude of criticism quickly spreads, ultimately undermining an atmosphere of trust.  Others will have good reason to wonder, “If they are saying that about her, I wonder what they are saying about me?” or “They must believe I was also part of the problem, because of the decisions we collectively had to make.”

I have observed new leaders who try to establish their leadership by devaluing those who have gone before.  Few things lessen credibility and respect quicker than this.

•  Be repetitive – the contributions from the past enable effective positioning for the future.  Obviously this cannot be meaningless sloganeering.   But if you want people to view the future with hope, they need to feel a sense of contribution for what has been and for what will be.  Ultimately this speaks to people’s perception of felt value.  Be careful not to assume that people know this.  Value must be demonstrated and communicated.

•  Seek to be as inclusive as possible.  Some factors that dictated the necessity for change can’t be shared but look for opportunities to communicate what you can.  In the absence of this, people feel excluded.  When this happens, a blocking, resistant mentality arises which neither benefits the resisters nor the people they seek to influence.

None of the difficulties associated with change should cause us to shy away from stepping into the future.  However, we do need to become better at communicating the change message especially how that change message will be heard and understood.

When all is said and done, in the midst of uncertainty, angst, and even anger, opportunity awaits.

So go ahead and run into change but do it with wisdom, humility, and compassion.

by Rob Inrig

Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved.

I welcome your feedback as well as your observations about change and the lessons you have learned.  Submissions are made with the understanding that they may be freely and without obligation be used in any future publications by Rob Inrig.  Of interest will be my latest book (ebook), What Momma Didn’t Put In.

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