Change is Personal

Posted on 5/12/2014

Change is Personal
Frank Irr

In a recent email exchange with a client CEO related to an organizational realignment project I sent the following to address concerns about the predictable anxiety amongst the staff. Organizational theorists have known about all of these behaviors for years, but now neuroscience has confirm why people react in this fashion. It's all about biology!

My message follows:

Change is personal, and for many, it can be downright scary. The good news is that we can anticipate the natural responses to this change and try to address them. Here's how…

The brain's central organizing principle is to minimize danger (threats) and maximize rewards. If a stimulus is associated with negative emotions or seen as a threat, people react instinctively in an avoid response (move way--fight or flight). Resistance to change is, by definition, avoidance behavior. Additionally, the threat response is intense and very common. It also reduces one's ability to see the big picture, make decisions, solve problems and even collaborate.

We use a model called SCARF to help diagnose and strategize about ways to reduce the pain associated with this sort of change. It's been popularized by David Rock, a NeuroLeadership Consultant and an expert in the new brain science at work. His research would indicate that as the realignment becomes more real for people they will begin acting out of fear and "move away" from the perceived threats of change.

Our primitive brain evolved when we faced the physical dangers present in early human existence, however, we find few physical threats at work today. Workplace threats are social. An organizational realignment is rife with these social threats. SCARF's five domains allow us to predict the nature and magnitude of these threats' impact on behaviors. We could apply the model in the following fashion:

S - Status: Changes in status affect our perception of relative importance to others. Some may fear that realignment will affect their status. Will they retain their current position? Will they have a place at all in the organization? Is a reduction in pay being considered? Will any change be seen by others as a demotion or minimization of one's competence and authority? Until we announce the new organization and begin filling positions, these questions will remain.

C - Certainty: The brain loves certainly however changes to the structure will only create more questions about the future (e.g. where do I fit in the new organization, who will be my boss, when will the change occur). Not knowing how a change will affect each of your employees, their threat level will be on high alert (expecting the worst). The longer the implementation drags on, the longer people will worry about an uncertain future. Communicating constantly about what is coming is essential to minimizing this threat. It also argues that we should move quickly, but thoughtfully (see Fairness below).

A - Autonomy: People naturally want to have a say in the outcome. For most people these realignment decisions are completely out of their hands. It's no wonder they are on edge. We should think of a way to give employees some say in what happens going forward. Personal conversations with each impacted leader is a nice start. Can we find other ways for people to influence the process, even in a minimal way, to give them the sense that they have some part in determining their destiny? The obvious one is providing some input regarding their choice of possible new assignments. How about giving them a part in planning some element of the implementation for their department? I can see possibilities here.

R - Relatedness: Being connected with others, even developing loyal friendships at work, helps us feel safe. The new structure has the potential to break up long-time connections inside and outside the organization. Moving to a new responsibility comes with creating new professional relationships. For instance we've raised the issue about transitioning contacts with partners in our discussions. Can we help people see that this is good for the organization in some way, or perhaps good for their careers? How can we create more inclusion and connectedness early in the implementation process?

F - Fairness: People need to feel the process is "procedurally just" and that back room dealing is not undermining their future interests. Transparency regarding a just process is the key here. With the process taking some time to unfold, individuals will want to fill the silence by making up their own story. We need to counter the rumor mill by being transparent about the process and communicating constantly with them about what we are doing.

This model is comprehensive and one of the easiest I've found to apply. Let's use it to audit our approaches throughout the implementation process.


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