Change and Tension


I was talking with a colleague the other day and we were discussing organizational change. And we both arrived at this same conclusion: by its very nature change causes tension, stress, and discomfort. So it is no wonder change is often met with resistance. The mistake most change managers make is trying to smooth over or ignore the tension and avoid any discomfort. While it would be great if everyone were happy and seamlessly moved from one state to another, reality tells us that people don’t work that way. What change agents need to become more practiced in is navigating through the stress, not trying to eliminate it. Great sailors are not ones who constantly avoid storms, but who learn to successfully navigate through the difficulty.

To help organizations through large scale transformational change it takes a delicate mix of encouragement, facilitation, empathy, tough-love, and A LOT of listening skills. Most change managers work on increasing the amount of communication from them to those affected and while it is important to tell people what is going on and what is anticipated, what is much more important is listening to their concerns. The goal is not necessarily to make their concerns go away or convince them they need not feel that way. The goal is simply to allow them to be heard and understood. The stress, concerns, questions, fear, and trepidation people feel during change is perfectly normal and they NEED to feel those emotions. If, as a change manager, you work to suppress those emotions they will eventually resurface at key moments (usually when you are not there) and sabotage the change effort and perhaps cause that person to cling even more tightly to the old ways.

Two Approaches

The project management approach to change relies on highly orchestrated levers and switches to be thrown within the organization at appropriate times. While mechanically, this approach works very well and can fit certain circumstances, to use it for all organizational change would be a grave mistake. If what you are seeking is transactional change (one day we do a process this way, another day there is the new process) then the mechanical project management approach to change can work. There may be a fair amount of resistance as typically this approach takes little consideration for the people affected by the change. Yet, at a transactional level you can create boundaries that limit people’s ability to deviate. For example, if you switch software platforms, people can get upset but there is little they can do but accept and migrate. This approach tends to marginalize the importance (or even existence) of emotional distress.

The other approach is the relationship management approach which looks at the effect on the people first.  One option in this approach is to work to make those affected feel more comfortable with the change.  The other is to adapt the change as necessary so adoption is more palatable.  From an adoption standpoint everyone feels more comfortable with the change. In certain circumstances it could be the right way to go, especially if the end goal is fluid. Changes to effect interpersonal dynamics of a team might be a perfect scenario in which to use this approach. The downside could be it either takes forever or the final version of the change resembles nothing of what was envisioned in the first place and strategically misses the mark. The change manager in this case works so hard to make people feel okay with the change they lose sight of what is needed for the business or what tactically needs to be done for the change to actually happen. This approach tends to put too much emphasis on the emotional distress to the point it becomes the driving force rather than strategy.

The Synthesis

For large scale cultural change (also called second order or transformational change) a synthesis of the two approaches is required. It is also much more demanding of the change agent. They must now become a navigator and captain through the storm. And from a competency perspective they must be comfortable in the presence of high emotion without feeling responsible for it. For this type of change to take place a change agent must be able to facilitate with empathy for those affected AND direct with tough-love and encouragement to push them onward. It is not okay to derail simply because people feel uncomfortable and it would sabotage the change if you ignore or marginalize it. This is where I have found the word “and” comes in handy. People are uncomfortable and nervous about what is happening AND that is natural and part of the process. Things will work out AND it is totally understandable that people feel uncomfortable doing something they are not familiar with.

The Synopsis

For real change to take place in an organization, there is effort, casualty, reward, stress, confusion, innovation, and tension. A true change agent knows the tools and levers to manage change AND has the empathy, compassion, and tenacity to encourage people onward in a way that facilitates change. Cultural change is both a science and an art, both complex and simple. Effective change agents can navigate between both worlds and help people feel okay with being stressed. Winston Churchill had a wonderful quote to summarize cultural change – “When you find yourself going through hell, keep going.” A good change facilitator is your guide to the other side.

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