Coping with change

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."  - George Bernard Shaw

Written by Mind Tools
Published 26 July 2018
Coping with change

Change is an essential and constant part of our lives. It can range from the trivial (decorating a room in your house or getting a new pet) to the significant (getting a new job, being promoted, getting married or having a baby). It can be imposed on us or caused by us, evolutionary or revolutionary, routine or one-off, mundane or transformative.

The psychological effects of change

But what effect does change have on us?

This is difficult to assess because people react very differently to it. Some of us are happy to get stuck in, learn new things or do things differently. But for many others it can be threatening, unsettling and disruptive.

Despite this, in 1969, Elisabeth -Ross suggested that we all tend to go through a five-stage psychological process when we experience change. First comes denial, then anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

Other studies have shown that we tend to cope in two main ways:

Escape coping: we try to avoid change and take specific actions to do this. For instance, we deliberately miss a training session for a new working process, throw away warning or reminder letters, or ignore calls from a new manager.

Control coping: we react to change positively and proactively. We refuse to behave like a "victim" of circumstance. Instead we manage our feelings and get support so that we can be a part of change.

Our personality type can also influence our reaction to change. As can our motivating forces (for example, power, status, money, affiliation, and inclusion).

Change and the conscious competence ladder

How well we cope with change is also dependent on how well we learn. After all it's is all about learning new things or "unlearning" old habits. Indeed, authors of "Organizational Behavior," Andrzej Huckzynski and David A. Buchanan, argue that learning isn't just about the acquisition of knowledge, but also the "process of acquiring knowledge through experience which leads to a change in behavior."

We go through a number of different emotions when we learn. At first we might not appreciate just how much we need to learn (we think we "know it all"). Then, when we discover how small our knowledge really is, we may feel embarrassed or disheartened. Some of us may even give up.

According to Noel Burch's model, The Conscious Competence Ladder, there are two factors that affect our thinking when we learn a new skills - consciousness (awareness) and skill level (competence). And there are four levels that we have to move through when we build up our competence. These are:

  1. Unconsciously unskilled: we don't know that we don't have this skill or that we need it.
  2. Consciously unskilled: we know that we don't have this skill and can recognize our own incompetence.
  3. Consciously skilled: we know that we have this skill.
  4. Unconsciously skilled: we don't know that we have this skill because it's now second nature to us.

Behavioral versus humanistic change

So how can organizations help learners move through this "ladder of learning"?

Some believe that taking a behavioral approach is best. This means motivating and aligning workers to the desired outcome (what you want them to learn) through a combination of reward and punishment.

However, others believe in taking a more humanistic approach, which focuses on tailoring your approach to people's own preferred learning style. This approach can often make the process of learning quicker and easier for people. If, however, organizations fail to do this, they may find that people avoid it or even become resistant to it.

5 ways to cope with big changes

The first thing an organization needs to do is to consider the impact that it will have on its people.

There are five factors that influence an individual's response to change. These are: the nature of the change and its consequences, the organization's and individual's histories, and the individual's personality type (and preferred learning style).

Organizations should also consider the following questions beforehand:

  • Who will win or lose as a result of the change?
  • How has the organization previously handled similar circumstances?
  • Does the management team have the expertise and resources to handle change well?

1. Address people's concerns

Many organizations will likely come up against some resistance. This is often because people worry about the consequences of the new way of working or don't fully understand what they need to be doing now.

In fact, Edgar Schein argues that people experience two competing anxieties when faced with change: survival anxiety and learning anxiety. For it to be successful, survival anxiety has to be greater than learning anxiety. To achieve this, Schein suggests managers act to reduce people's learning anxieties rather than increasing their survival anxiety. Essentially, address people's fears, don't feed them!

2. Clarify the outcome

The organization also needs to be clear about what needs to be changed and why it's so important.

As business coach and mentor Hugo Heij explains, "Every day - as day changes to night - we experience a major change but we cope with it because we know what to expect. People avoid change in an organization because they don't know the end result. That's why it's not right to talk about 'managing change.' You need someone to lead change by making it clear where you're going and why you're going there. Only then will you get all the necessary people on board."

3. Know your limitations

It's also important to know your limits, and when you might need to call in outside help. This might involve getting advice from internal or external experts.

As change leader Dave Webber says, "The best change leaders that I've known have recognized their limitations and, while clearly articulating their vision for the organization and how it needs to change, they recognize their need for help to implement it. They engage internal or external experts to help them."

4. Set your measures for success

You need to demonstrate that the change is being implemented successfully. So it's essential that you know how you're going to determine this. In other words, how are you going to measure it? And who will be responsible for this?

All too often, internal resources in HR and L&D teams aren't involved strategically in the process - possibly because they're seen as guardians of policy and procedure, rather than drivers of change. But this overlooks the important position that such teams have in the organization. After all, they likely already have strong relationships with people across the organization, and are in a great place to share information, collect data, and answer questions and concerns. As training providers and facilitators they are also perfectly placed to advise on people's preferred learning styles.

5. Make a collaborative decision

Sometimes an organization knows that it needs to make some changes but doesn't quite know how to achieve them.

As Webber explains, "One of the difficulties with the practical application of change theories is that they're often predicated on knowing, precisely, the outcome.

"In my experience, change isn't always like that. While knowing that something different needs to be tried and having an idea of what's needed, it's often necessary to set out on a journey before you have a clear idea of the destination, or at least how you'll get there. In such circumstances the real change comes from the individual and organizational learning on the way."

In this instance, change can be especially hard for employees, because there are no clearly defined outcomes in place. But, if employees are told about what the organization wants to do and are asked to contribute their own ideas, it becomes a more collaborative journey that the organization and individual can take together. This only works however, if the organization keeps people informed at all times about what's going on, and employees show a willingness to be flexible in return.

About the author

Mind Tools

Mind Tools

Mind Tools was started in 1996 to offer practical online learning to people in the workplace.

By the time they joined Emerald in March 2019, they had grown into the one of the world’s most comprehensive learning resources, with millions of individual learners in 50 countries worldwide.

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