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Helping Employees Embrace Change

Originally published in HRHorizons for the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), Helping Employees Embrace Change, outlines the key elements that cause fear and confusion in team members when confronted with significant change, and how that individual frustration directly impacts the success of organizational change initiatives. Howard Teibel offers a framework for positive change, offering the techniques your organization can implement to turn natural confusion into a positive learning and growth opportunity.

This week on the Navigating Change Podcast, join Howard Teibel and Pete Wright for a discussion on the change framework introduced in the article, and the importance of building a positive change environment.
Helping Employees Embrace Change
“What happens when anticipated change becomes your worst fear?

— Howard Teibel, “Helping Employees Embrace Change”

Halfway through my most recent talk at a higher education conference, I told the attendees that I wanted the first three rows to move to the back of the room and the last three rows to move to the front. After a brief pause of bewilderment and disbelief, attendees started gathering their belongings to move. That’s when I announced: “You don’t have to move. This is only a test.” The imaginary pitch forks aimed at me transformed into a collective sigh of relief.

For most of us, something routine like picking a seat at a conference entails a simple calculation: Sit in the back if you want to sneak out or text without being seen; sit in the front if you want to be actively involved in the discussion; or sit in the middle if you want the benefit of both those options. Whenever you ask someone to get out of their comfort zone—such as moving to a different seat—the reaction is often as predictable as it is humorous: Are you kidding? Why? I’m not moving.

Those same responses tend to surface whenever a system implementation is announced. Consider also the common reaction when word comes down that a restructuring will take within your division or perhaps organization wide. In both cases, internal emotional chaos ensues.

Is it possible to help ourselves and others relate to big changes in a way that empowers a positive reaction, even when the change appears on the surface to be negative? How can we learn to shift our mental framework from thinking about the bad things that might happen to envisioning the opportunities we can create for ourselves and others?

Three Common Reactions to Change

First, consider three different reactions to change.

  1. Cool ambivalence. Sheila has been working for her college for the past 18 years. Coming to work one morning she discovers an e-mail from her associate dean describing a plan to restructure the department, along with some changes in management. A consultant would be helping with the process. The rumors start buzzing, as staff members attempt to interpret the hidden meaning behind the announcement. Most of Sheila’s coworkers are 10 to 20 years younger and have little experience with change in the workplace. Sheila, on the other hand, recognizes this as something she has been through many times before. Over lunch she proceeds to share her perspective with coworkers to alleviate their fears about how wide-sweeping the change will likely be and suggests they not worry about much actually changing. This is simply someone’s latest “great idea” that they will need to weather.
  2. Irrational anxiety. Bob, an IT manager, is responsible for the human resource and financial systems used across the campus. He has been in this role for two years, having worked his way up the organizational chart during the past 10 years. During a staff meeting with the head of the department, Bob learns that the university is looking for a new strategy to replace the constant upgrades and patches needed to keep these systems current. A task force has been assembled focused on exploring ways to significantly improve efficiency in IT, specifically in the areas Bob supports. Upon hearing this news, his first thoughts are that his own job is in jeopardy. He proceeds to e-mail every colleague in the department detailing how bad this change will be. Within a week, half of the staff members in his department think they are in danger of losing their jobs. Two months later Bob is still talking about how bad the change will be, and his department remains in a state of high anxiety.
  3. Positive purpose. Joan joined the human resources department three years ago and enthusiastically wants to make a difference in the university’s hiring practices and processes, bringing to bear her unique perspective and success from her previous institution. Within six months Joan discovers how difficult it is to integrate new practices among her coworkers. Despite the skepticism she has encountered—including from her boss—Joan is determined not to give up trying to initiate positive changes. Every time someone tells her why something can’t be done, Joan listens and then shares her vision for a different way to consider the issue.

Sheila, Bob, and Joan reveal distinct reactions people can have when facing change. Sheila’s tenure at the college makes her resilient, but also ambivalent and unenthusiastic. Bob is waiting for the next shoe to drop—and in the meantime is stirring up anxiety among his coworkers. Joan not only ignores the negativity of others, but continues to offer ideas for making positive changes for her department and the institution.

What causes people to have such varied reactions in the face of change? Different life experiences, a perceived lack of options or fear of loss, and poor self-esteem or low confidence are among the many factors that may contribute to how an individual reacts to something new or different. How can we improve our personal reactions to an anticipated change and help others do the same? Often, the problem is not change itself but the ambiguity that change creates. Marilyn Ferguson, author of The Aquarian Conspiracy, may have characterized it best when she said:

“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear… It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.”

Change forces us not only to recognize that we can’t rest in our comfort zone, but also to confront the fact that we might not be able to look forward sufficiently to see where we will land. Any change requires venturing into that middle place and looking for some hint of light at the end of the tunnel.

Taking the Positive Approach

“With a new governor, a new board of trustees and the reality that we are now a tuition-dependent institution, our organization needed help embracing change. I was looking for a way to help our managers and staff understand that personal responsibility for navigating change in our professional lives is a key component of a high-performing team,” says Bob Shea, vice president for business affairs at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI).

This need led Shea to offer a workshop to his division focused on learning to better accept and embrace change. In reflecting on the workshop, Shea noted that the people who benefited most from the workshop were those who brought a certain perspective to the experience. “The common thread among those who found it most useful were those having an open mind and some level of optimism for the future.”

One CCRI staff member who participated in the workshop recognized that she needed to adjust how she viewed work challenges. Terrie-Lynn Bell, media specialist in the IT department, had felt overwhelmed by the learning curve of her work and didn’t think she knew enough to do her job well. She was concerned she wouldn’t be able to resolve certain issues on her own, especially with regard to helping faculty with technical issues in the classroom.

Among the insights Bell took away from the workshop were the need to bring a positive attitude to each new challenge and to surround herself with others who also have a positive outlook. Getting on the negative bandwagon only spreads those negative vibes to others, and that can impact your own progress and success, observes Bell, who interacts frequently with students and faculty in her job. “If you struggle, they struggle. If you’re comfortable, they’re comfortable. If you laugh, they laugh.”

Four Rooms, Four Views

While most of us are hard-wired to seek what is within our comfort zone (e.g., a particular seat in a room), and while some of us are able to let the ambiguity of something new roll off our shoulders, there is a common cycle we all go through in times of real change. During the workshops at CCRI, attendees were introduced to the four-room model of change developed by Swedish psychologist Claes Janssen, which allowed them to identify where they were within the institution’s change cycle and became a useful mechanism for beginning to feel a greater sense of control for taking positive action.

The four rooms of Janssen’s model are contentment, denial, confusion, and renewal. The four-room model can be applied to any type of change—a reorganization, a potential layoff, or watching your child head off to college. Let’s use the implementation of a new hiring system to consider this model.

Contentment room. Within the workplace, a very familiar example of traveling through the four rooms is evident when an institution rolls out a new technology campuswide. Before the current system is shut down and the new system is up and running, most of us are in a place of contentment. Logging in, processing a transaction, and logging out is second nature—something we could almost do in our sleep.

Denial room. Then on a Monday morning you go to process a new transaction and nothing is the same. Yes, you received training on the new tool, but let’s be honest: Does anyone really pay attention until they have to do something for real? By the time you’ve reminded yourself how to log in to the new system, you could have processed the entire transaction and gone to lunch using the old system. It doesn’t take long for a sense of frustration, anger, and desire for the old system to return. In the denial room, you longingly look back and want to forget the reality of the change.

Confusion room. Most of us do need time to vent our frustrations, blame management, or get over our initial discomfort. Yet, at some point we must move on and “get with the program.” The sooner we recognize that no one is listening to our complaints and the new system is here to stay, the more quickly we can enter this third room. At this point we’re not completely ready to let go of the past, but we start to make greater efforts to get through the change. (This is also that middle place described by Ferguson, where we can’t bring back the past, but we don’t yet see how we’re going to end up in a better place.) Confusion itself is often misunderstood. This is an emotional state that actually signals the beginning of learning and the foundation for accepting something new. The next time someone shares with you how confused they are, respond “that’s fantastic.” You may get some odd stares, but what we’re really saying when we’re confused is that we’re trying to learn how to do something. We’re using our energy to look forward versus looking back. Getting to this room is a key milestone in navigating change.

Renewal room. As the confusion starts to wane and we develop a greater comfort and confidence with the new system, we find ourselves admitting that maybe the new way is better than the old way. This is when we enter the fourth room, and with it comes a sense of relief and satisfaction for having successfully tackled the change. In some cases, renewal may not last long before the cycle begins again—especially when it comes to perpetual technology upgrades.

Dealing With Big Amorphous Change

What happens when an anticipated change becomes your worst fear? For many in the workplace, that fear is losing one’s job. Immediately after the financial crisis of 2008, Brown University faced a 25 percent reduction in its endowment. Senior leadership took this as an opportunity to look for ways to streamline work, including not filling vacancies, providing for early retirement, and weighing potential layoffs. Brown leadership recognized this would be a challenging time for its people.

With a goal of helping the larger organization deal with the need to significantly reduce costs and potentially reduce head count, Karen Davis, Brown’s vice president for human resources, seized the opportunity to provide leadership for those who needed help adjusting to the ambiguity of what the future held. “In the early days of the financial crisis, we knew that it was likely going to have a significant impact on our bottom line as well as on jobs. However, we weren’t sure of the size of the impact, nor could we predict what our comprehensive response strategy would be,” says Davis.

What Brown’s leaders did know was that the university was in for a period of dramatic change—something that typically does not come easy in the higher education environment. That convinced Davis of the need to help prepare the university community for change. “Our hope was to channel the collective worry into something more positive for individuals as well as for our community overall.”

Davis and her team focused on helping the larger organization deal with facts in a way that empowered them to take action rather than cause additional anxiety. The university sponsored a series of change-management workshop designed in conjunction with Brown’s Center for Learning and Professional Development, led by Judy Nabb. The workshop provided a forum for employees to articulate fears and concerns (personal as well as work-related) and to share them with colleagues. The workshops also provided an opportunity to learn new strategies for dealing with uncertainty, for pushing through change, and for taking control of one’s work life. Over the course of eight months, more than 260 Brown employees took advantage of the workshop experience.

According to Davis, the impact was positive and dramatic. Many employees benefited immediately from simply having a safe forum in which to express concerns about their jobs; the effect of the downturn on their families, friends, and neighbors; and even about Brown’s future. The relief many workshop participants felt after these conversations allowed them to focus on what they could do to prepare for the future, both personally and professionally, notes Davis. Ultimately, this led to a better understanding of university concerns and greater commitment to helping address the institution’s financial challenges rather than resisting the changes required to tackle them head-on.

As Michelle Venditelli, one Brown workshop attendee, stated: “There was a great sense of unease during that time, and I found the focus on change in this workshop experience very helpful. It gave me great tips for how to deal with stress on a personal level, but also helped me be better equipped as a manager to deal with the stress that my staff were feeling.”

Much of that spirit carries on today as the university community continues to deal with the fallout from the financial crisis and several significant leadership changes, new programmatic priorities, and external political threats, says Davis.

Unlearning and Relearning

Futurist and author Alvin Toffler once stated that the illiterate of the 21st century won’t be those who can’t read and write, but those who can’t learn, unlearn, and relearn. That remains a prophetic statement for the period of accelerating change facing many higher education institutions today. Unlearning is about allowing ourselves to go through the full cycle of change—from contentment to renewal. Personal power resides with our ability to recognize what is in front of us and to be willing to push through our own denial and confusion to reach that light at the end.

So, the next time you go to a workshop, consider changing your seat after the break. You might find a small power in shaking up your vantage point and in not waiting for someone else to tell you to move.

Exploring the complex waters of Higher Education.

Join Howard Teibel and guests as they dissect issues facing institutions and teams in transition and offer solutions for the most troubling process challenges.