Karen Cherrett Consulting

All about People – Process – Projects

Category: Managing change

Why it’s important to unlock the emotional side of change

We are all humans and so to unlock the emotional side of change allows individuals to move through change in a faster and more productive manner.

Did you know that hiding your emotions during times of change isn’t optional?

William Bridges through working with many organisations where change initiatives had failed undertook research into why this was the case.  Bridges found that most businesses dealt with the process, and forgot about the human aspect of it, namely employees emotions.

Managing Transitions

Bridges described this process of managing the emotional side of a change as ‘transition.’

As William Bridges said in  his 2009, 3rd edition of ‘Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change’ [p. 3]

Even though you probably won’t find it in the change document, transition isn’t some optional “if-you-get-around-to-it” add-on to the change; it’s not icing on the cake that can be forgotten until things ease up and you’ve finished with the important stuff.  Getting people through the transition is essential if the change is actually to work as planned.

Transition does appear to be ‘optional’ in the minds of Senior Executives in today’s organisations.  Many change management plans are focused on the physical change that is occurring, for example:

  • that date in time when the structure of the organisation is going to change completely,
  • when the new system is going live, and it will change your day job,
  • changes in the operating model of the organisation.

The Standard Change Management Approach

Working as a ‘Change Manager’, the title that is used in the recruitment world today, your main focus, just like that of a Project Manager, is to help the business deliver the expected and known business change with as little disruption as possible.

The Change Impact Assessment talks about how this change (that moment in time event) is going to impact all of the stakeholders in and outside of the organisation.

The Communication Plan is seen as very necessary to communicate how the change will impact the business – we’re doing this, so this will change on this date, for example.  And the training is planned so that people can understand how the new system or process works.

This management of change is all well and good as it does help people to understand one aspect of the change, but as Bridges so rightly points out, it’s the transition that is the most important.

Why is the emotional side of change important?

You as a human being have feelings.  During any change, you will react, and with this reaction will come a range of emotions. You’re not immune to it, no matter how much you like to shut down what you’re feeling. It’s normal when things move from being what you know, to different.

Your ‘transition’ will occur, with or without a change management plan. You will feel a sense of loss in some way or other.  People will feel as if for some time they are in a no man’s land of the old not being what it was and the new still not fully understood and visible.  This feeling might be for a short time or a long time.   I heard a recent example of this ‘Neutral Zone’ phase taking someone five years to travel through successfully.  And then there’s the acceptance and welcoming of the new beginning that will occur.

How this all plays out in your organisation

In organisations that are changing due to restructures or re-organisations your staff will experience similar experiences to that posed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her ‘Grief Curve’.  William Bridges himself explains that the feelings associated with transition are not too dissimilar to feelings of grief and loss.  It makes sense because that is exactly what is occurring.  Loss of a way of being, thinking, or doing for each staff member, whether impacted in a large or small way.  The grief is the emotional reaction to what is occurring and is a very normal experience.  One that should be accepted and acknowledged, rather than ignored.

Accepting and supporting staff through their transition journey, as part of the overall change process, is something that needs to be done, not ignored.

There are five signs that your change management initiatives have failed, and they are all related to the emotions that are visible in your workplace.  Are you seeing signs of strong emotions displayed in your workplace?  This may be a strong sign that your current change management approach isn’t working.


Practical tips for managing your team through change

Are you good at managing your team through change?

As a manager, busy in your role do you stop to consider how the changes that are occurring in your organisation, to your business unit, or team are impacting on each member?

My guess is that while you do consider it, you may not fully understand what is happening emotionally for your team members.  And no one can expect you to, as they are not your emotions. Yes, there’s that word.  The one that isn’t supposed to be spoken about in organisations – ‘Emotions’.

It seems that there is fear in the workplace suggesting that ‘we mustn’t talk about feelings because that sort of thing doesn’t belong in the workplace.’  In doing this though we totally negate the fact that each and everyone one of us in a work environment is an individual emotive being.

Allow a place for emotion in the workplace.

Daniel Shapiro explains that “Emotions do not just ‘appear‘.  Many of the ones that arise in your everyday communications and conflicts stem from five predictable core concerns:

appreciation (recognition of value),
affiliation (emotional connection to others),
autonomy (freedom to feel, think, or decide),
status (standing compared to others),
and role (job label and related activities).”

During times of change and the associated transition that people go through, they may feel loss related to each of these, especially if the organisation is changing in a significant way, like restructuring, for example.

The change need not only be related to reduction either but can be just as relevant in the context of growth phases.

Any large scale change that impacts on an individual will see them experience emotions as part of their transition journey.

Accept and acknowledge your emotional state during this time.

Accept and recognize that each person will experience some emotion.  It will not only help you, but it will also help your staff travel their transition journey a lot more smoothly.

Acknowledging your emotions doesn’t mean that you need to sit and cry in front of your team members if you are sad about the change that is taking place.  It does mean opening up and sharing that you are feeling sad about the change, though.  Your team members are more likely to share their feelings with you if you talk about your emotional response.

It is not a sign of weakness to share how you feel.  What it does do is show your human side and connects with your staff.

Be open to listening to your employees when they share how they are feeling

One thing that you can do that will assist your employees greatly is to hear them expressing how they are feeling.  There is no need to pass any comment or judgement, especially if you have also shared how you are feeling.

If you understand the transition process, you may like to explain to the staff that their emotional reactions are a natural part of their development journey. What they are feeling is normal, and it will pass if they can acknowledge their perceived loss.

The other side of managing change

When managing change, what is the other side?

I often hear the word ‘change’ used to describe many things that happen in an organisation.  For example an upgrade to a computer operating system, or a whole of organisation re-structure or merger.

The word change is also used to describe what is ‘changing.’ This could be an office relocation or process change. Most often with change there is an impact on the people.  Whilst change does impact people, there is something else at play that is not always addressed.

Management and staff may be aware of it, yet not sure how to describe it, or even what to describe.

What I am talking about is the ‘emotional journey’ that individuals are going through when the change occurs.

The standard change management approach and why it doesn’t work

The standard way of approaching change management is to deal with the process side of it, first and foremost.  Often communicating what is going to happen and how things are going to be changed is key.

Having spent many years working this way I watch it fail, time and time again.

It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.  They aren’t the same thing.

Change  is situational: the move to a new site, the retirement of the founder, the reorganisation of the roles on the team, the revisions to the pension plan.

Transition, on the other hand, is psychological; it is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalise and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.

William Bridges – Managing Transitions, 3rd ed.

William Bridges came to realise that when standard change management practices failed, there was something else at play.

What he noticed was when change occurred what was not being addressed was the emotional aspect.

He set out to understand what was occurring and from that developed his ‘transition model.’

The model is a way of providing knowledge of how to better support change.

Bridges Transition Model

The key aspect of Bridges transition model is being willing to acknowledge how you are feeling, and placing yourself in the model according to your own emotional journey.

This works best if Managers place themselves before openly discussing and determining where each individual in their team is currently sitting.

By doing this it supports individuals to acknowledge how they are feeling emotionally about the change. And then understanding what they can do to move through this journey in the most effective way.

A brief explanation of the three zones

The end zone is all about acknowledging what you feel you are losing and grieving that loss.

In the neutral zone, we feel confusion and uncertainty as things are no longer the way they were, nor yet in a new place that we feel comfortable with.

New beginnings occur when we meet our earlier emotions and feel excited about the opportunities of what is occurring.

Why acknowledging our emotional journey works

The key aspect of acknowledging the transition that staff are going through is that it supports a return to a productive state more quickly.

Without this acknowledgement, staff feel unsettled and uncertain in the midst of the change. This can occur when they are not comfortable expressing how they are feeling emotionally.  Emotions are a natural part of being human.  And yet, in the workplace setting, it is often frowned upon to speak about emotions.

Learning to support your staff members through their transition journey, will not only help you as a manager but the organisation as a whole.

If you would like to learn more about the transition model and how it might benefit you and your organisation, please contact me.

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