Except for “firing” and “layoff,” no six-letter word generates quite as much anxiety around the old water cooler as “change.”
We thrive on routine, whether it’s stopping at the same coffee shop every morning or following a specific protocol for filing reports at work. The mere mention of “change” typically invokes feelings of vulnerability, insecurity and anxiousness. Though we understand on a rational level that change is constant and unavoidable, fear of the unknown can be upsetting. How to implement change while minimizing turmoil has long been a major challenge for executives and managers.
In his 2016 video talk, 5 Ways to Lead in an Era of Constant Change, Jim Hemerling blames organizational incompetence for reinforcing fear among employees. He says many companies will only take action when there’s a problem or will try to disguise layoffs as strategical initiatives. Neither of these scenarios is comforting for employees.
“Change is hard. People naturally resist change, especially when it’s imposed on them,” says Hemerling, an organizational change expert with the Boston Consulting Group. “Too many transformations are nothing more than head-count cutting exercises – layoffs under the guise of transformation.”
Change cannot be a one-and-done process, according to Hemerling. It succeeds only when it’s part of the cultural mentality. Fluid and adaptable workplaces regard change and progress as normal, not extraordinary. And leaders bear the brunt of establishing the organizational mindset that welcomes change and innovation.
In their 2016 article, Ignite Change, authors Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez suggest that executives and managers must empathize with employees frightened of change. Employees should be encouraged to verbalize their concerns and be reassured that they are not alone.
“Leaders will need to use communication to create moments that galvanize their followers and move them past obstacles and on to the next stage of their journey,” Duarte and Sanchez write.
The notion of change actually evokes fear of failure in many people; they’re afraid they won’t be able to adjust or grasp new skills. They don’t want to leave the protective cocoon of their comfort zone.
“Continue taking positive action and making consistent changes until the rhythm of change becomes as familiar and comforting as your morning jog,” writes Scott Steinberg in Make Change Work for You.
Steinberg says leaders must send the message that failure is a natural consequence of growth. Risk makes reward possible. Employees need to understand that they won’t be penalized for trying something new. Even in the midst of success, a company – and its workforce – must be open to changes.
“Organizations must actively fight to instill and promote values such as courage and bravery within members,” Steinberg writes.