Managing the emotional side of change

Written by
Andrew Mawson, founder, Advanced Workplace Associates

21 Dec 2020

21 Dec 2020 • by Andrew Mawson, founder, Advanced Workplace Associates

Change can often feel like a Herculean task, because it requires us to learn new stuff, and learning new stuff is metabolically expensive for our brains, writes Andrew Mawson. 

As I wrote in my previous piece on what tennis can teach us about the process of change management, our brains are hardwired to repeat the behaviours and actions that keep us physically and socially safe. Humans are programmed to reject change unless they understand what it is and that there is something in it for them. We are creatures of habit, deliberately so. 

But to improve performance at an individual or organisational level, this often requires us to leave behind old habits and start working in a new way. It’s conscious and deliberate and it’s usually something that someone else wants us to do, not necessarily something we want to do ourselves.

Forming new habits

To return to the tennis analogy, imagine that a player who has been executing the same shot in the same way for years is told by his coach that he or she needs to change to improve performance. It’s traumatic and will often provoke an emotional response. It questions the player’s ability as well as some deep-rooted beliefs about the way he or she performs. It may also force the player to question the coach’s ability.

After all, it’s the coach that has asked the tennis start to perfect a certain technique, often to great success. The key is painting a vision of new successes – championship wins, prize money and other personal goals.

It’s precisely the same in the workplace when it comes to changes in process, practice or behaviour. In some ways, it’s even more significant because our already overloaded brains find it tough to find the bandwidth to enter into a conversation about change.

Starting the conversation about change

The first questions people want answers to are: why should we change, and where is the evidence? Then they will to want to know the consequences for them personally, and what the change will look like (the end state). Finally, people will need to understand their role in making it happen. There’s a lot to take onboard and to work out even before you enter into a conversation with someone about change. 

To make it more complicated, everyone has the potential to respond to change differently. Some people will be enthusiastic and see it as an opportunity for improvement; some will try to shy away and not engage hoping that the change will go away; others will become sanguine or, in extreme cases, angry and frustrated. Change challenges pre-existing ideas and understandings deep-seated in the brain, so when change is mooted emotions can run high.  

That said, a good leader or change coach knows that these responses are natural. Sometimes we hear people talk about people’s resistance to change as if those who do not immediately obey are bad citizens and should be put on the naughty step. This is the wrong way to look at it. It would be worrying and unnatural if everyone surrendered to the change without questioning it.    

Managing change with empathy 

As a leader or change coach, you have to tread with care, sympathy and sensitivity. If you become the embodiment of a change that nobody wants you can become a lightning conductor for everyone’s frustrations and emotional energy.

The key is to remain objective, calm, supportive and sympathetic to people’s challenges and difficulties. People often need time to absorb and come to terms with change. Arguing with people is not the thing to do. Being right doesn’t lead to change success

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