Change process and worst-case scenarios
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
– I can’t stop thinking… do I still have a job?
We can only imagine how much courage she needed to summon up in order to be able to put that question to her manager at the beginning of the change process. And we can only imagine how much speculation there had been behind closed doors amongst her colleagues, asking themselves the same question. The manager bit his lip, realising his previous communication on the matter had not been so clear, after all.
I was recently hired to work with an organisation that was about to embark on a process of significant change. The starting point was a workshop with those affected by the change. The manager and I had agreed that he should start the workshop by outlining the background to the change. I would then let the participants process this information gradually, taking things step-by-step. When as people we face change and uncertainty, lack of control or autonomy, speculation can quickly take over. This can feel like an indescribable lump in the stomach and we can end up making rash assessments or decisions. Sifting through all the facts, thoughts and feelings can reduce uncertainty and result in a better overview of the situation. It increases the chances of us making wiser decisions and enables us to establish properly grounded intention for going forward.
Facts. When my client had described the background to the change, I asked the participants to discuss what they had heard, in pairs. Your interpretations aside, what did the manager really say? After the talk in pairs, there was room for a group discussion where the participants could ask follow-up questions to reduce the risk of misinterpretations so that everyone in the group had the same picture of the situation.
Thoughts. The next step was for the participants to talk about what thoughts the manager’s speech had triggered. What could this all mean to me? What do I really think about it? A number of questions could be answered directly. The participants realised, however, that they would have to endure some uncertainty, which is an important aspect of any change process. As a manager you may feel pressure to provide answers to everyone’s questions. It is tempting to start making predictions in order to calm their nerves or even your own anxiety. Instead, it is better to follow the example of this manager. Depending on the specific question he was asked, his reply was: "we don't know right now" or "that is something that we together will find an answer to."
It was at this point that the question of job security surfaced. The manager’s understanding was that he had already clearly communicated the situation. However, as is often the case in processes like this, change raises concerns and speculation gains momentum. “Did he really say that…didn’t he really mean…did I hear that right”? The manager could now go on to clarify that no jobs were threatened due to the change process.
Feelings. The third step was to talk about feelings. Now, that part went smoothly, but I wonder what would have happened if we had not had this discussion in such a structured way. It is not a given that the issue of job security would have come up by itself. It is easy to imagine that without a structured form of conversation, particularly in an atmosphere laced with speculation and anxiety, that it would not have been as easy to speak up and ask "Erm, I wondering about…"
Wants. The fourth step was to talk about the will to change, and the degree of motivation and energy to move forwards. This part also went well, and the client reported afterwards that the mood in the group had improved significantly.
So, what can we learn from all this? In addition to the importance of providing a structured conversational format, perhaps the realisation that in times of anxiety you can never be too clear if you want to avoid people conjuring up unnecessary worst-case scenarios.
If you want to enhance your ability in leading change, I recommend my free guide: What they don't tell you about change management.
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