After organizations experience a period of major change, the natural inclination is to spend a lot of time and energy focused on reassuring people that the change is over and the future will be stable. While this approach may feel like the most logical step to getting people back to productivity, the reality is that nothing ever truly stabilizes – and if it does, it stagnates. So, instead of spending time convincing people that there won’t be any more change, why not reframe the conversation and teach people to be okay with change?

We know very well that the environment is always changing and organizations must always be open to change to keep up with the competition, or to stay ahead of trends and market demands. And as organizations must change, then people must change to stay current within the organization. In a recent #SmartTalkHR Webinar, I talked about how to take the chaos out of change and make change easier for employees. You can view the webinar in its entirety here.

Most organizations are not teaching employees how to be okay with change. If your organization is still assuring people that the change is over, here are some suggestions for reframing the conversation around change.

Shifting our beliefs about change

Before we can hope to make people more comfortable around change, we need to understand the dynamics between people and change. Here are some things we know about change that will help us understand how to manage our reactions to it and teach others to shift their beliefs about change:

  • People aren’t necessarily resistant to change
  • The environment heavily impacts one’s ability to change
  • Habits are easy for the brain
  • Emotion moves us to change
  • Change sometimes requires a reframe
  • People like to believe they’re in control 

People aren’t necessarily resistant to change

We get married, we have kids, we change jobs, we move houses, we go out to buy a new car. Some people move to new cities, new states, new countries. We choose all of these changes and accept them as positive elements in our lives. If we continue to believe that people resist change, why do we choose change so often?

The environment heavily impacts one’s ability to change

We know how influential the environment can be. For instance, if we’re trying to help someone's addiction, we actually tend to pull them from their current environment, because we know the environment is often supporting their addiction. This is the same for other types of changes. If we want to make a change, we have to look at the environment and ask, "What in the environment is impacting a person to do what they’re doing the way they've always done it?" In other words, what’s impeding change?

Habits are easy for the brain

As soon as a behavior becomes automatic, that decision making part of your brain goes into a form of sleep mode and automatic pilot sets in. This can be a real advantage, obviously, because it means you have a lot of mental energy to devote to something else. Which is why, it's really easy to drive your familiar route home and focus on something else, like a conversation with a friend or singing your favorite songs on the radio. Because it's habitual, you don’t have to think about it too much anymore.

Emotion moves us to change

We all like to think we are logical, but emotion is actually a big part of change. I think the best example I've ever heard of this is from the book, "The Happiness Hypothesis."  by Jonathan Haidt. He uses the analogy of an elephant being the emotional part of our brain, and someone that sits on top of the elephant with the reins, being the rational part of our brain. He says the rider, the logical and rational part of our brain, may have the reins to the elephant, but if the elephant disagrees on which way to go, the elephant always wins. That's why we sometimes do things that logic tells us we shouldn’t do, because the elephant, the emotional part, is larger.

“We are not thinking machines, we are feeling machines that think,”

Antonio Damsio

Change sometimes requires a reframe

In order to accept change, we first have to accept the assumption that change is normal and not something foreign or unfairly imposed on us. Change needs to be an accepted part of life and a normal part of the workplace culture. When change is celebrated, and encouraged, people cease to look for those times when the change will be over. Instead, they accept change as it happens and adjust to it as a normal course of business.

How to Make Accepting Change Part of the Workplace Culture

People like to believe they’re in control

The truth is, we aren't ever in control and we don't know what tomorrow will look like. However, when we feel in control, we feel better. Giving people a sense of control and input into change will help them accept the inevitability of change because they feel they are the agents of change.

Given the dynamics of change, let’s talk about three essentials that will help you take the chaos out of change.  I’ve found that there are really 3 key ingredients of change, whether you’re talking organizational change or personal change.

  • Vision
  • Pull
  • Action

Vision - Becoming familiar with the future

A good vision of what is to come really helps people become familiar with the new normal – depending on what you want that normal to be. When we try to create a vision for people of what the new normal is going to be, it really needs to have some emotion. Businesses are usually pretty good at the rational part and explaining the logic behind the change. If we want people to embrace change, organizations need to get better at communicating the emotional part. Companies need to tap into the reasons people seek change in their personal lives and see those changes as positive.

A good example of this is when people make the choice to have children. If someone told you that when you have kids you’re signing up for a boss that will scream at you every time you don't meet their needs and will wake you up at all times during the night, you would not buy into this particular vision.

I could show you a spreadsheet of how kids might benefit your life, but you wouldn’t be convinced. The only way I could pull you into accepting these conditions would be to make an emotional connection between you and the prospect of having children. In both our personal and professional lives we make movement when we are pulled by our emotions.

Pull – Getting buy-in and participation

The best way to get people emotionally involved in change is to get feedback from anyone who will be affected by it. The idea here is to go broad and remember that change has a really wide ripple effect -- think broadly about who it might impact. If you want to build trust and get people to emotionally invest in change, you get feedback and suggestions prior to making a decision. If you're going to ask, and you should, you’ll want to genuinely ask for people's feedback. Asking for feedback once the decision is made will not help people to accept change and is likely to do just the opposite, creating resistance and outrage at the charade.

Action - Involving everyone in change

Give Choices: Whenever possible, leave room for choices in the midst of change. For example, if you need to change a business process, identify the choices within that process where employees can have choice and highlight for them the places where they have control.

Create clear and simple steps: Try to minimize the number of things introduced by a change. Help people take action on the change by making the steps a person can take very clear and simple. 

Design Environmental Support: Once you make the steps you want people to take clear, you’ll want to look back at the environment again to find areas where you can adapt it to make accepting change easier. For example, during an organizational change, consider ways to reward people and look for ways to adjust the environment to make it easier for them to embrace change.

Ready to take a deeper dive into taking the chaos out of change and exploring these three essentials in more detail? View the webinar in its entirety here.

Jana Anders is president of Emergent Leadership, and an executive coach with 15 years’ experience coaching and training leaders. She specializes in leadership essentials, coaching and feedback, managing performance, collaborating with a variety of personalities, and leading employees through change. She has been named Training Magazine’s Top Trainer and has worked in multiple industries and has developed leaders around the globe.