anxiety

This article examines why people find change difficult and how managers and leaders can help employees find success.

We all know change is, at times, demanding. It takes us outside our comfort zone and challenge us at every level.

In a 2017 article in the British Journal of Management*, Rafferty and Jimmieson explore three demands that cause people to struggle. Let’s look at them.

Disturbance

The authors write, “any modification to habitual patterns is disturbing, as functioning in repetitive ways helps individuals to develop skills that allow them to achieve their goals, and provides them with a sense of control over their environment.”

In other words, familiar habits help people develop the skills they need to achieve their goals and to feel empowered. Our sense of purpose is linked to our ability to achieve things that matter to us, and the feeling that we have some control over our lives. Our psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being suffers if we lose that sense of purpose.

Change disturbs us because it disrupts our habitual patterns. It demands we learn new skills, develop new relationships; in short, to live differently. We are expected to do different things or do the same things differently. And importantly, change brings uncertainty into our lives. Do we have the capacity to achieve our personal goals and to control our environment? Are we being tossed into a raging sea with nothing to hold onto?

Disturbance refers to the internal response to change – our sense of self, our vulnerability, our sense of purpose and our perception of how much control we have over the future.

Disruption

Again, quoting the authors, “When major aspects of a workplace such as its culture and typical ways of working change, people experience a great deal of disruption.”

We live in an age of disruption. Disruption takes place in the environment around us. When culture changes, we are exposed to new ways of thinking, talking, and behaving. There are new expectations and new rules to adjust to.

Disruption occurs when ways of working change. Tasks are performed differently, some previously important tasks are no longer needed, and new tasks become important. Disruption is not easy to adjust to. The world has changed, and we are expected to adapt to it.

Disruption happens around us – in the culture, driven by technology, shaped by new ideas, riding the winds of change. It is not easy to adapt to it and most of us can’t control it. This lack of control over the external world and the rapid pace of disruptive change creates anxiety in individuals and groups.

Disruption also creates uncertainty. We can’t predict what the future will look like and what implications it will bring. It’s hard to know whether optimism or pessimism is the most rational response.

Deliberation

According to the authors, “transformational change is experienced by employees as a ‘shock to the system’ which prompts individuals to deliberate about their position in the organisation.”

In other words, change breeds insecurity. It’s a major shock to the system, and after the shock comes the doubt. What will it mean for me? Where do I fit in? Do I belong? Can I be who I want to be in the new system? Do I have a future here?

Deliberation. Organisational change often becomes the seed for personal change. Seeking a new job. Starting a new business. Finding a new partner. Change breeds uncertainty, doubts, and sometimes, more change.

Change Fitness

In the light of these 3 demands, is it any surprise that most people don’t like change?

But that’s not the whole story. Some people do like change and handle it much better than others. While some people lose hope, give up their goals, and relinquish control over their lives, others navigate a new pathway through the confusion and find new ways to achieve their goals and live a purposeful life.

Why does this difference exist? There may be multiple reasons, but an important one is that some people have more change fitness than others. This allows them to handle the uncertainty, anxiety, disruption, and disturbance of change and find a way through it. It allows them to be more self-reliant and more in control of their lives.

Be Aware

Whenever you manage people through the change process, especially in transformational change, be aware of just how difficult change can be for people. You have your agenda and others are depending on you to deliver the goods, but you can’t do it alone.

Sometimes we think of the leader being out the front, leading the troops into battle. But that’s not always how it should be. Sometimes, and especially during times of change, the leader needs to stand alongside the troops, calming their fears, inspiring hope, and making sense of it all.

Understand that change is hard for people on many levels. And if their change fitness is low, you need to become their champion, supporting them and keeping them on track. Accept that their insecurity and uncertainty may often look like resistance. But don’t punish them for that, support them in the moment and help them build more change fitness.

*Rafferty, A., & Jimmieson, N. (2017), Subjective perceptions of organizational change and employee resistance to change: Direct and mediated relationships with employee well-being. British Journal of Management, 28, 248-264.