People Aren’t Afraid of Change – It’s About the Challenge of Navigating It

Jun 24, 2015

I’m at a conference and the morning keynote just stood up in front of the entire room and pronounced that change is hard because people are afraid of change.

And I cringed … because it’s a line that’s repeated over and over again in conferences, webinars, and trainings that completely misdiagnoses the problem.

Repeat after me: People are NOT afraid of change. People are afraid of loss.

Think about that for a moment. We’ll come back to it. But first, I want to discuss a little bit about change management at a higher level.

The 4 stages of change

When change is implemented at your organization, be it big or small, the folks deciding on and implementing the change are going to go through four stages: Visioning, Execution, the Transition Trench, and Sustained Progress.

  • Visioning: When you’re preparing to implementing the change, whatever that change may be.
  • Execution: When you actually flip the switch and start doing things differently
  • Transition Trench: The period immediately following the change, when your team will experience a loss of morale and productivity as they adjust. This will always happen. Always. Leadership’s job is to get their people through this period as quickly as possible to get to the last stage
  • Sustained Progress: When you’ve pushed through the turmoil of the transition trench, your team has adjusted, and you’re achieving the vision that you set out in the first stage.changemgmt

Navigating transition successfully

Of all of those stages, the visioning stage is the most important to your success! To successfully navigate the transition trench later on, you need to do three things in your visioning stage:

  1. Set your vision: Get your ducks in a row and make sure you have established a clear vision that you can articulate to your people, and how this change is going to make their life easier/better.
  2. Assess your context: Think about the people involved in executing that change – What do they care about? What do they feel like they are going to lose? How can you best communicate to them to make sure your message is received well?
  3. Generate buy-in: Get people on board with it.In order to do those last two well, you need to understand what people have at stake, what things they care about, and what they might lose. Here’s why:

“What does this mean for me?”

When people are reacting to a change, it’s not necessarily that they are opposed to the outcome, or what the organization is trying to achieve with it. It’s much more granular than that and gets to the “what does this mean for me?” question.

  • What responsibilities will I lose?
  • What processes will I lose control over?
  • What responsibilities will I have to take on that will impact what else I am able to work on?
  • Who won’t I work with anymore?
  • Will this impact how much money I make?

All of these questions are not about the change taking place – they are about the impact of that change on the individual. That means they are not afraid of the change – they are afraid of the impact on them, and what they could potentially lose as a result.

This is a nuanced problem, and to overcome it, it’s critical to diagnose this problem correctly! Dismissing negative reactions as people as being “afraid of change” does nothing more than dismiss relevant and legitimate concerns.

No one likes to have their concerns dismissed, and it just makes buy-in all that much harder. When you barrel through visioning and execution without bringing those people along, you’re going to have a long, hard transition trench.

Navigating the transition

It’s the jobs of the leadership – those who have employees reporting to them that will be impacted by the change – to help their teams work through their concerns by assessing the context they are working with, thinking (on an individual level, as much as possible) about what the problems are going to be, and working with you people to help them through transition.

When you do that well, you’ll navigate the transition trench much more quickly.

How do you get your team over the transition? More than anything, people want a chance to be heard. Generating buy-in is not about getting everyone to agree with you. However, they do need to have their ideas heard, understood, considered, and then explained within the context of the overall change.

Make sure you’re giving your team sincere opportunities to transparently understand what you’re doing, ask questions, and express concerns. Then, show them that you’ve heard them by responding to the concerns that you can!

What will employees get out of it?

If you can’t give them what they want, make sure you don’t just say “No, this is the way it’s going to be.” Instead, explain what they will be getting that will benefit them – give them more context than the negative to help mitigate the reactions.

At the end of the day, it’s about people.

People are not logical and rational beings – they make emotion-driven decisions (yes, even you!). Saying they are afraid of change is not a complex enough answer.

This was originally published on Zen Workplace.