20th Mar 2023
3 Min Read

Six emotional reactions to change

Lindsay Kohler
Lindsay Kohler
People & Change

This is an edited excerpt from the best-selling book Even Better If: Building Better Businesses, Better Leaders, and Better Selves.

Change management is not a dark art. Nor is it impossible. And it certainly needn’t be traumatic for your organization. There is truth in the notion that change management and change communication benefits from experience, expertise and a good dose of common sense — but it’s our belief that the management of organizational change has evolved into a bigger and more complex challenge than it need be.

Change has developed a tough reputation because, frankly, too many companies get it horribly wrong. Businesses, like individuals, sometimes behave in a thoughtless and insensitive manner.

Many change initiatives fail because the people in charge fail to consider the emotional impact of change. “Too often, people deal with the cognitive, and lay out a rational view of what needs to happen to go from A to B, which naturally implies that A is bad and B is good. And if that’s done in a straight-forward PowerPoint deck with a consultant lens, it misses the incredible nuances of human behaviour,” says Jane Hanson, Chief People Officer at Nationwide Building Society.

At the heart of what drives people is emotion, plain and simple. And when we don’t factor in emotions and how people react to what they are feeling into the change management equation, things can go horribly wrong.

Let’s walk through the primary emotions people face when experiencing change at work, and show how to make planning for emotion automatic and baked in. It’s about moving from a process-focused approach, which is what many large organizations take, to an emotional-driven approach focused on the employee journey.

The primary emotions associated with most change situations are:

  • Uncertainty
  • Fear
  • Anticipation
  • Resistance
  • Loss
  • Gain

Primary change emotion #1: Uncertainty

It’s change’s uglier, scarier sibling that goes by the name of “uncertainty” that gets our backs up. Uncertainty can be paralysing. Uncertainty is a threat. When we feel mentally or physically threatened, we become laser focused on the threat. If that’s a change at work, imagine how difficult it is for those impacted by a change to continue to apply the appropriate amount of focus and perspective to their to-do lists and the decisions they need to make when all they can do is think about the looming threat?

Primary change emotion #2: Fear

Fear is predominantly generated by two forms of risk: unknown risks and dread risks. Dread risks are the real scary stuff, like airplane crashes and terrorist attacks. Luckily for us, we don’t often deal with dread risks. So that brings us to unknown risk which is…wait for it…essentially the scary bits of uncertainty. It causes a state of high alert and it also makes us feel like everything is a lot harder to do.

Primary change emotion #3: Anticipation

Anticipation can be both pleasurable or it can be anxiety-inducing. Pleasurable anticipation certainly has a role to play in change management; for example, when you’re waiting to hear about a promotion or perhaps your office is being remodelled and you get a great new space, desk and view. But for our purposes, let’s focus on anxiety... because negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones. When we’re in a state of anxious anticipation, it can negatively impact work performance. Anticipation can also be prolonged if the change moves slowly, which is often the case in large, complex organizations.

Primary change emotion #4: Resistance

We all know those people who think the rules don’t apply to them... and those stubborn resisters show up in organizations, too. These are the ones who will devise convoluted workarounds instead of using a new system. They are the ones who think if they ignore change, it’s simply not there. Or worse, they’ll adopt an “I’ll wait it out” mentality. The trick is to understand that the resistance comes from clear places. The need for more detail. Cynicism borne from a bad experience or lack of trust. Fear of loss or status or disengagement. When you find out the root cause of the resistant, it’s easier to tackle the issue with the right activations... and, importantly, to approach them with empathy rather than animosity.

Primary change emotion #5: Loss

For many at work, their identity is partially status-driven. If a change takes that away, it’s bad news. Therefore, when people are facing into a loss situation, we need to provide space to actively appreciate that those feelings are very normal and very human. And, similarly, when making a business change in which status quo shifts or disappears, where people are losing what was and looking out into something new and uncertain, we have to give them time to mourn the loss and come to terms with the new.

Primary change emotion #6: Gain

Here’s where we get to talk about the good forms of change, which should be celebrated! This utilizes one of the most classic change management tricks in the book: finding the “what’s in it for me” angle. Leaders must always keep an eye out for the positive impacts of change and selling that message in.

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