Managing psychological change

Written by
Mark Winwood

15 Feb 2017

15 Feb 2017 • by Mark Winwood

When this change happens, HR has a critical role to play in managing the change process in the workplace – ensuring employees are kept onside by being kept abreast of what’s happening, why, where and when. 

Arguably the greatest challenge faced by HR in managing change is keeping employees engaged and productive. Change can trigger feelings of fear or threat, as employees perceive they’re losing control, losing their identity, skill, financial security and feel anxious about what may be an uncertain future. Everyone responds to change differently and HR professionals should be prepared to deal with varying intensities of reaction at any stage of the ‘change curve‘ – a model first introduced by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying and which comprises a series of five emotional stages that people affected by change may experience: 

1. Denial

The initial reaction is one of shock or denial, which may be characterised by drowsiness, freezing and/or withdrawal.


2. Emotional

When individuals realise denial cannot continue; they may respond by becoming angry, fearful, frustrated and beset by feelings of despair.


3. Bargaining

This third stage involves the individual seeking ways to negotiate to try to regain their balance, for example, by bargaining to find an acceptable compromise.

4. Depression

This fourth stage is characterised by an inability to plan, which may be accompanied by poor concentration and problems with sleeping.

5. Acceptance

In this fifth and final stage, individuals come to accept and even embrace their situation. They then can begin to formulate new goals, expectations and relationships, with a positive outcome of their becoming re-energised and reoriented.

Helpful though the Kübler-Ross model may be, it is important to recognise that it is not necessarily linear. Individuals may have their own order of progression and also miss out stages or revisit them. Often business leaders have got to the stage of acceptance and positive outlook by the time they come to inform employees. They therefore need to reflect on their own change journeys and remember that others in the organisation will need time to catch up and adjust.

In short, due to uncertainty, change triggers stress. So HR professionals need to be vigilant to help those in involved to maintain their morale and performance throughout the process. This can be challenging as change is often driven by a need for cost savings, which may include redundancies. However, in addition to meeting the legal and regulatory requirements that may be entailed in these situations (consulting on proposed redundancies, for example), HR should try to bring a positive approach to the task to help to ensure a positive response and successful implementation that, as far as is practicable, meets stakeholders’ needs.

Creating the change...

1. Recognition and preparation

Breaking the news is the critical first step and HR must be fully engaged with their leadership’s plans for initiating the process. For instance, is the announcement to be made individually or at a group meeting? It’s also important to anticipate that employees’ reactions are likely to vary – and be ready to respond to them. Good preparation, underpinned by clear, consistent communication, will stand a business in good stead and help to avoid an information vacuum where speculation or panic can spiral out of control.
2. Control

Once the initial announcement has been made, the next key step is to help employees gain a sense of control of their situation. This will help them to come to terms with the change. When explaining the need for change, it is important to try to avoid uncertainty by clearly setting out what it means and how it will affect people throughout the organisation and customers/key stakeholders alike. Making this clear for each individual will help them to fully understand the situation and, in turn, begin to accept, adapt and respond in a positive way. 
3. Trust

In times of change, employees value the counsel of those they trust and it is therefore important for HR professionals to do their utmost to maintain employees’ trust at this time. This should include making themselves available for confidential discussions to provide employees with the information they need to gain control of their situation and begin to address any issues they may be facing. Employee assistance programmes can be employed to good effect at such a time to provide confidential, professional counselling to support employees and help them to deal with the pressures they’re experiencing. 
4. Encourage resilience

Resilience is a desirable quality for any workforce and should, ideally, be championed by HR as a matter of course – for example, by introducing awareness raising programmes that bolster wellbeing and confidence – and not just during times of change. Resilient people are generally optimistic, sociable and seem to have an inner strength that enables them to cope more effectively with life’s challenges. 
5. Consideration

Being the great communicator, HR’s role during a time of change should also include fostering awareness and understanding of employers’ and employees’ respective needs. Achieving an acceptable resolution of competing interests is never simple and may not be wholly practicable but it’s important to remember that mutual awareness and understanding can go a long way to maintaining goodwill and morale and help to ensure the process is managed effectively. 
Change, however large or small, has the potential to disrupt any business. People accept and embrace it at different speeds so patience – and clear, consistent communication – are key to maintaining morale and momentum at what, for many, will be a difficult time. By being attentive to the needs of all stakeholders, HR is well placed to manage it effectively. Remember, change is inevitable – but an unsuccessful outcome is not.