Tips for Alleviating Change Anxiety in Your Organization

Change is the only constant, we have been told. Today, change happens in many organizations, in many ways. Some claim the speed of change is accelerating. Accelerating or not, for me, the speed surely feels fast in the middle of the change whirlpool of Digital Transformation, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, evolving customer needs, organizational changes, new business models, you-name-it.

Change Management was the 5th most voted topic in my Blog topics survey. In this post, I’m sharing some insights into change and anxiety.

The key question: Why do some people get anxious and others just continue unaffected, when they confront a change?

The answer: Timing, control, individual needs, approaches and perceptions.

My hypotheses on change anxiety:

The ones who decide about and lead changes get less anxious due to the change than those who need to follow.

The lower in the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs the change affects, the higher the likelihood of anxiety.

To back my hypotheses, here are two short examples about change:

1) Management override that changes your weekly plans: Our CEO, I’ll call him Bill, returned from vacation and informed us in a Monday morning management meeting about multiple meetings / activities he had for us for the coming week – many of those needing others’ attendance or input. With that management override, my plans for the week were wiped off, and I had to re-schedule a bunch of tasks, and a couple of meetings with project teams and individual subordinates.

Bill didn’t seem to feel any sorry or anxiety about changes affecting the rest of the organization. Why? He had had the whole yesterday, the night and the morning to adapt to the change. We had 15 sec. What could we, who were affected by the sudden change, do? Inform Bill, which other previously agreed goals would be undermined by the change? Inform there are already previously agreed other meetings and not accept the change of plans? Boldly stating: “Your lack of preparation doesn’t constitute a change in my plans.”? Those would have been an attempt to bring a bit of control to the receiving party – with the risk of getting fired. The equation was straight forward: This is no big deal compared to losing my job, which could hit the bottom two floors in the Maslow hierarchy of needs. In my case, the solution was: Breathe in, breathe out, move on.

For me, the biggest anxiety didn’t actually arise from the change itself but the style in which the change was informed: top-down-authoritarian, no signs of empathy, no “Let’s solve this together” but “You do as I tell you”. The fact that similar kind of changes and change delivery had happened before, also didn’t help alleviate anxiety.

2) Personnel cuts and layoffs. I’ve been through ten (yes, 10) statutory cooperation negotiations during my career. In three of those, I’ve been part of the organization subject to right-sizing. In seven cases, I’ve been responsible for right-sizing as a manager – which is a bit like getting the immunity in the reality television shows. For those of us on the line of fire, who were not financially independent, layoffs threatened our needs in the lower half of Maslow’s hierarchy. In those seven cases, as a person with immunity, no matter how much I tried to empathize with the individuals, whose job was at stake, I couldn’t get even close to the gut-crunching feeling of having my own job at stake. In terms of timing, the management always gets to know first about layoffs, which gives them a psychological advantage. The Finnish law guarantees a decent time period and mandates discussions between the company management and teams before decisions are made, which is good for reducing anxiety at such harsh moments of change.

Change Anxiety is a Feeling. Feelings are Personal.

There’s no objective measure for how people feel the magnitude or speed of a change. How change affects a person is also dependent on individual characteristics and attitude – how one deals with changes in general. Is it a threat or an opportunity? Or both? Sometimes a seemingly positive change can threaten a person’s need for stability in their life, causing anxiety, which looks completely irrational to those ready to jump on new things and adventures. Being in control – at least partially – alleviates the negative consequences of changes. One can control the rate of change, the direction, or maybe even the form/content of the change.

What factors affect a person’s ability to cope with change? Security, Self esteem, Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset… Search for and discuss about the affecting factors in your team.

Summing up: How to minimize anxiety in your organization, when introducing a change?

Here are some findings based on my reflections the above stories:

Strive for results through inclusion, not dominance. I believe empathetic leaders, who can see the issue from the receiver’s point of view, are best in leading the change. Letting the receiving party feel at least a bit of control will help. The feeling of control may increase from such subtle things as the leader asking for the team members’ points of view. This doesn’t have to mean the leader let’s the team overrule or decide – it’s a two way street. Bill could have asked for our proposals on how to keep the pace with the ongoing projects and also work on the topics he wanted to handle that week.

Get to know your team. Then you know better, how to address a change on individual level. Michael Auzenne and Mark Horstman, the founders of Manager Tools, state that one on ones are the single most effective manager tool and help you get to know your team.

Give your colleagues time. Change requires some time. Unless you are dealing with a catastrophe and people’s lives are in danger, you can typically afford more time than you initially think. It depends on an individual, how much time is enough for a certain change. Had Bill given us a heads up signal early in the morning via email, I would have been better off accepting the change in the plans with a lot less anxiety. The person on the driver’s seat always has more time to adapt to the change – hence less anxiety for the leaders. Below is a nice diagram about the stages of change by Todd Atkins.  Pay attention to the steps before the action.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cf/Stages-of-change.pngSource: Wikimedia

Use management override cautiously. Sometimes a crisis emerges, and everything else is secondary. Trust me, your team knows very well, when there is a real crisis and when you are misusing your role power. Unjustified management overrides will not only cause more anxiety but the inherent lack of trust also erode motivation. Read more about that in my post about trust and motivation.

For more insights on change:

Heraclitus – a Greek philosopher for change.

Dalai Lama XIV has said:

“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.” Source: goodreads.com

N. K. Jemisin has said:

Some people react to fear by seeking security, change, control. The rest accept the change and just go on about their lives.

Last, but not least: For alleviating your own reactions to change, see Susan Biali’s article How to Manage the Anxiety That Comes With Change in Psychology Today.

Call for Action

How have you felt in a middle of a change? Have you been driving the change or not? Have you ever been stressed due to a change? Did you feel you were in control at the time? Please share your own experiences. Challenge or comment my points of view. Sharing is caring.

About the author

tkw-linkedin-photo-2014

Tom Weckström is a management consultant, a change agent and the founder of Balandor Inc., a systems thinking oriented management consulting firm that helps hi-tech companies survive, improve and succeed in the middle of constant change.

 

Stakeholders related to this post: Employees, Colleagues, Team members, Managers, Leaders, Executives, CEOs

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