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Managing Change in the Workplace

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

Have you recently been through a change, or are you currently going through one? I think the majority of us have had some form of change in our workplaces over the past few years.

Take a moment to think about:

How that change felt? And what challenges you were faced with? I imagine most of you are thinking of words like stressful, uncertainty, worry, fear, confusion, angry, frustrated, lack of control or changes to your routine. So, mostly negatives, and whilst I completely acknowledge change can be negative and you can feel a real range of emotions during this time, throughout this article I want to try and focus on what we can do to manage change positively, whilst of course being realistic.

When something can be positive or negative, people will more often than not focus entirely on the bad. Change is similar. Change can be positive, but unfortunately, because it also has the potential to be negative, we are thrown into a defensive mode, where we want to avoid the change altogether. But we cannot avoid change, change is inevitable and nobody goes through life without experiencing any change. In actual fact, imagine how boring life would be if we never experienced any change! I am not by any means saying change is easy or that it is not a big deal. Throughout life many things will change; it is a constant for everyone and something we all need to learn to be accepting of.

Organisations and businesses are constantly changing due to a wide range of factors. Change is very common in the workplace. Any kind of change (even if it is change that you have planned yourself) can feel uncomfortable for all sorts of understandable reasons, and it is completely natural to be resistant to change.

The Benefits of Change:

Before I go on to talk about the benefits of change, just pause for a moment and see if you think of any benefits of change in the workplace?

Excitement, new possibilities, development, growth, new challenges, progression, an inspiring new manager, the business moving forwards, ‘opportunity’.

Often we have trouble developing a vision of what life will look like on the other side of change. So, we cling on to the known rather than embrace the unknown. It isn’t necessarily the change that we fear it’s the unknown that we fear.

Why do Things Change?

Businesses will continuously need to re-evaluate the way they are operating, in order to be successful. This is for all sorts of reasons, some examples include; money/ funding, cuts/ input costs, market conditions, competition, customer demands, new management, new ideas, new technology, staying up to date with developments and new regulations/ laws. If we can gain a greater understanding as to why the change is happening, it can make it easier for us to adopt and accept the change.

The Change Curve:

Above is the change curve, you might have seen this before. When we experience change we tend to go through these 4 stages. It is reassuring to know that this process can take time, everyone is unique. Some people cope a lot better with change than others and some people get to stage 4 ‘acceptance’ a lot sooner than others. Everyone experiences change differently and people will have unique progressions and regressions depending on their circumstances.

Stage 1 – the shock/ denial stage. This is the stage where you will be taking in all of the information, you may feel confused, unsure or uncertain about what is happening but that is a totally natural response. You should try to seek reliable information and make sense of the situation, you should avoid any gossip or rumors to prevent unnecessary stress. If you want any updates, ask your line manager or HR rep and try and focus on positives. Questions you could ask yourself during this stage: Are there potential benefits that you had overlooked? For example - Might an enforced change of role allow you to learn a valuable new skill, or to work with an inspiring manager?

Stage 2 – the emotional response stage. Change can be emotional, even if it is positive planned change, this is usually due to the unknown or perhaps leaving behind a lovely team that you have worked with for a while and created a lot of friendships. It is important to avoid suppressing your emotions but it is equally key to manage them. Be open and be honest about how you feel, make sure you talk with your manager.

Stage 3 – the exploration stage. This is where most progress will be made in terms of moving forward, as highlighted on the change curve. So during this stage your focus will likely start to shift away from what you’ve lost and towards what’s new. This can be an exciting time, as people start to really embrace the new change and focus on the positives.

Stage 4 – the acceptance stage. This is the stage in which you come to fully accept your changed circumstances, you are committed to moving forwards. Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up on your former situation, you’ll have lots of valuable memories, skills and relationships to carry forward, but the point is, is that you are moving on, whether in your career or wider life. It’s a good time to set goals and action plans on how you are going to move forward and achieve those goals in a positive way. I am not saying this is easy because it isn’t, but if we don’t accept it, we battle it, and that drains our energy and increases our stress levels.

We are more likely to progress through these stages successfully if we; acknowledge our feelings, rather than suppress them, if we explore the facts, and if we aim to remain positive, and draw on support networks, whilst always giving ourselves time to adapt.

Resilience and mindset:

“Change is the law of life and those who only look to the past are certain to miss the future” (J. F Kennedy). I love this quote. We can impact how that change will affect us, this largely comes down to our mindset and our resilience.

High resilience can allow us to lead a healthy lifestyle despite increased stress, which will help to manage change. Resilience is often described as our ability to “bounce back from difficult situations”, although this is true, it is quite simplistic. I think a slightly better definition is “a person’s ability to prepare for, cope with or adapt to times of stress or adversity”. Having the ability to deal with change, adapt, and move forwards is both important for our physical and mental health. Those with high levels of resilience are shown to be able to ‘adapt in the face of stress or adversity’ or ‘bounce back’, which is really important when we are considering change in the workplace. Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone. There are many ways to build resilience during times of change. One of the key ways is to know what is in your control and what is not.

The circle of control:

Stephen R. Covey introduced the idea of the Circle of Control in his book – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It is extremely useful. It helps to highlight how much control we have over different aspects of our unique lives. By creating several rings for what we can and cannot control, we can determine what we have the most control over and then we can take ownership of what we put our energy in to.

So what I want you to do is just think about your current situation:

- Draw a large circle and think about the change in your life/ your specific situation. Think about all of your concerns regarding this change, even if they’re quite small. Things in your control go into the middle, things you can’t control go to the outside.

- What does your circle of control look like? You might find you will have more outside the circle, because there is lots we cannot control (i.e. company mergers, unplanned life events), but focus on those things towards the centre of the circle and put your energy in to them.

If we focus on what we can’t control, we can feel overwhelmed and dis-empowered, a bit like fighting a losing battle. Those who thrive in change will focus on what is inside the circle. This helps people to be proactive about their situation and happiness can therefore increase, which reduces stress.

If someone was in danger of losing their job due to company changes for example, they might focus on things out of their control, this is a waste of their energy. Instead they could be proactive and acquire a new skill so they stand out from other employees, perhaps they could set up a meeting to talk about where else their skill set could be utilised.

Remember that change doesn’t need to be negative, we can take control of our mindset. Ask yourself what is positive about this situation? What elements do you have control over? Can you accept the change yet? Communicate with your peers, colleagues and managers. Discuss the solutions and the positives, try not to fall in to a negative mindset and if you do, speak up and seek support.

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