Change has been on my mind lately. Judging by recent posts from other bloggers, I’m not alone. Change is everywhere, every day, always happening, yet handling and managing change is a persistent issue.
Connie Podesta jokes that she has a four-word workshop to help people in organizations through periods of difficult change. Here it is in its entirety: “Change. Deal with it.” Funny and true in the sense that there will always be change so we might as well just get on with our lives.
Perhaps change isn’t the real issue, though. What if it’s the uncertainty of the situation? The Holmes-Rahe Scale rates life changes on a scale of 1 – 100 in terms of the amount of stress (or “life crisis units) caused. Interestingly, many of the events are differentiated based the size of change and not on whether it’s perceived as good or bad. That is, “major business readjustment” is the same amount of stress whether you’re benefiting or not. Same for “major change in responsibilities at work”. Same for “change in work hours or conditions”. Same for “major change in living conditions”. In fact, “taking on a significant mortgage” is listed as slightly more stressful than “foreclosure of mortgage or loan”. Good or bad doesn’t seem to enter into it as much as how significant the event is.
The more significant the event, the less certain we are about how it’s going to turn out, and the more we worry about the change. Changing offices is probably not a big deal. But a big promotion pushing us beyond our comfort zone really is. So is discovering you’re now in a completely different section of the org chart.
Consider this: the people initiating change have often been thinking and debating changes for weeks or months. They’ve processed the advantages and disadvantages and understand the whys and needs inside and out. Then it all too often gets foisted on the rest of the organization and everyone is expected to fully and immediately support the changes.
None of this is to say “don’t change”. Change needs to happen, but change is never without cost or challenges. Jon Bartlett urges us to consider the real human cost to change. People are not cogs or Lego blocks that can be removed, moved around, tossed aside, or recombined instantly and without effect. Even when change is good, even when necessary, us humans need time.
We talk about managing change, but how different would things be if leaders concentrated on managing uncertainty instead of change? The change would still be there, but I suspect we’d start focusing more on communication. We’d involve people sooner, explain the whys and hows, give them time to process and ask questions, and provide clear and consistent (and accurate and true) messages throughout. We’d make sure people knew where they stood and what to expect. We all know how important it is for US to know what’s going on, yet so often don’t do a good job of communicating to OTHERS. Robin Schooling recently explained this so well when she described the ONLY excuse for poor internal communication (hint: you don’t care about the impact).
Why does all this matter? Why can’t we simply expect employees to be adults and deal with change? One reason: the most talented people always have options. People with options don’t have to suffer poor treatment, half-thought through plans, or command and control temper tantrums. Whit at HR Hardball said it well: “Strong swimmers are the first to jump ship.”