Feeling overwhelmed by change

Introduction

At a recent webinar, I was asked this question: “As a working manager, how can you reduce declining trust in companies that make changes yearly, not giving changes a chance to show results.  Employees then don’t trust the next change.”

I think there are two forces at work here:

  • Cynicism about the likely value of the change
  • Uncertainty generated by the frequency of change

This is my advice for addressing these two forces:

Cynicism

Increasingly, staff at all organisations are showing signs of cynicism about the value, purpose and benefits of getting involved in changes that are not given time to show results before being asked to move onto the next change.

This means that a key ingredient of staff motivation is affected: the purpose motive. Dan Pink in his book Drive, has written engagingly about the power of intrinsic motivation, which he states is comprised of 3 inter-related forces:

  1. The belief in the purpose and value of the change
  2. Autonomy i.e. self-choice about how to get involved in the change
  3. Applying this self-choice to achieve Mastery, i.e. using the change to build skills and get better at tasks

However frequent the changes, I think supervisors and managers have to help staff see the value of trying to change existing ways of working. Spend time with them brainstorming the advantages, and identifying the current problems that might be solved if changes are made.

Break the change into small actions and ask staff to run each change as an experiment, where they track its impact and provide feedback to their colleagues. This encourages them to look for the improvements and to showcase them to others, which in turn feeds their belief that they are doing something worthwhile and beneficial.

Increase the value and therefore strengthen the purpose motive by looking beyond the benefits of a single change, by aligning it to other changes. Use your knowledge of other things that have changed recently and things that are likely to come up in the near future to put the change into a wider context. I have a template for communicating change that includes the following fields:

  • How does this change relate to changes that have already taken place over the last 6-12 months?
  • How does this change relate to changes that are currently taking place?
  • How does this change relate to other ideas that are currently being discussed and that staff might have heard about?

By relating one change to other changes, it creates a cohesive view of what is happening, and reduces mis-trust as staff don’t feel as if everything they are being asked to do is going off at tangents and doesn’t connect. This cohesive picture increases the feeling that each change is building on others and so is more worthwhile that if looked at in isolation.

Uncertainty

One of the most powerful generators of resistance to change is a lack of clarity on what to do, how to do it and in what order to do it. Help staff by creating a plan to implement the changes collaboratively, so that they are part of the planning process. My basic rule for managing change is always to ask rather than to tell, because this creates certainty and ownership in those who are being asked to work in new ways.

Another way to reduce uncertainty is to remind everyone of what is not changing. What isn’t changing is a source of comfort because it is a source of knowledge and ability. Staff know how to do their current work, and they can do it easily and quickly, so they feel confident doing it.

Whenever I am briefing staff on what is going to be different, I also list the things that are not changing. Even during significant restructurings, there is always something that remains constant e.g. location of where people work, the products and services offered to customers, suppliers, the need to report to senior management etc.

Communicating a balanced view of change, always talking about both differences and sameness puts the change into perspective, and stops people feeling as if everything is uncertain and unknown.

As I do this I can feel the stress reducing, as staff become less anxious and feel less overwhelmed by all the new things they are going to have to remember.

And now for the tough love….

Reality check – there is a need to find personal coping mechanisms for constant change because the frequency and volume of change is not decreasing or even plateauing. So If staff members think they are going to change their employer and find more stability at another organisation they are going to be disappointed.

Conclusion

Make discussions about personal coping mechanisms and the sharing of success stories a regular agenda item at your team meetings. Just be talking about the need for coping, you are recognising that we all feel stress at some point, and that it is OK to share and ask for support from your colleagues, which makes for a powerfully supportive environment.

If you want to hear more about dealing with change overload, join me at my next webinar https://apmg-international.com/events/managing-change-overload