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How To Support Staff Emotionally During Organisational Change

Written by: Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway

It is a fact of life that organisations go through change and transition from one stage to another. The hope is that staff will enter into the spirit of change and move forward for better or worse. For those who are unable to cope with change, it might threaten their security and sense of well-being by reminding them of past transitions that were hard to negotiate.

stress woman looking at laptop screen

I recall that when I was working as a supervisor there was a major organisational change which required middle managers like myself to reapply for their jobs. It meant that some would be promoted with the title of manager, some would be demoted and some would lose their jobs. The intention to change what appeared to be a well-functioning system came like a thunderbolt out of the blue with huge implications. No one suspected that this change of major proportions was about to be unveiled in the form of a memo. The discussions that went on in the board room were not percolated down to the staff. It felt as if there were no mechanisms for managing change or people’s emotions. Some staff automatically felt that they were disadvantaged by the lack of consultation and a strategy outlining how the change would take place and who would benefit most from it.


One of the best ways to help staff cope with change is to provide the type of support that will enable them to become actively involved in expressing their views and opinions. People function best when they understand the context of change and how they will be affected by it. Strategy and timing are fundamental steps in the process of change. Although I was successful in being promoted the process was extremely emotional because staff who were friendly and hospitable suddenly became hostile and resentful. These bitter feelings were intensified amongst the staff in my team on the day I received the positive result of my interview. The team was broken up and some of the colleagues I had worked with had to move on to different locations.


Here are six techniques that can be taken during the process of change to make it manageable for staff.


Technique 1: Help Staff Process Emotions


Transition is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as a process that encompasses change, or moving from one stage to another. In other words, it is a process or what is otherwise known as a rite of passage. As we go through transitions our emotions are affected in a number of ways. Therefore, understanding the emotional aspects of change acknowledges that people need time to process it. Organisational change is similar to the grieving process where people experience different emotions. The first is shock and denial, which makes them resistant. The Second is that staff will inevitably begin to distrust managers and feel that the change is only for the benefit of those in the upper echelons of the organisation. Distrust can have a debilitating effect since it can lead to the loss of goodwill. The third stage of this process is anger. The emotion of anger is not only harmful to those going through change but for those who are proposing change. Similar to distrust it can be destructive. Pre-existing relationships that were good can suddenly change as people feel as if their backs are against the wall. Depression is the stage that follows and is a common response to change when people do not have the inner resources and external emotional coping strategies to make the leap. They can quickly shift into a state of helpless and powerlessness. Therefore, each stage of organisational change must be managed in a way that will enable staff to eventually accept that they need to go through a transition. Throughout this process the intention must be to bring people in by devising frequent meetings where information is given and critical questions can be addressed. This will give reassurance, allay doubt and fear and help them to make the transition.


Technique 2: Reverse psychology


When organisations need to go through change, managers may make the assumption that staff will accept it because they want to earn a living or they love the company. They may overlook the stress and anxiety that comes with change. The practice of reverse psychology is a technique that can be used to gain compliance by asking people to do something that is contrary to their wishes and expecting them to disagree with you. You are anticipating that staff will be antagonistic to your ideas but by using this technique you gain their acceptance. For example, it could mean persuading staff to move to a new location even though they might not naturally choose to do so. In order to reverse negative thinking, you could use the technique of explaining the benefits and rewards of moving to a new office or proposing opportunities to create a work/life balance by offering a flexible package which could include working from home. It could mean giving travelling allowing as an incentive that could possibly persuade them to accept change. People react to change by expressing the need to maintain the status quo and defend their territory. This is what gives them independence and freedom of thought. To reverse the way people are thinking means helping them to move from their comfort zone to a zone where they might have to learn new skills, build new relationships, and carry a different set of responsibilities. Reverse psychology helps as you aim to win staff over to your way of thinking by helping them see the benefits of change and what it could mean for them in terms of advantages.


Technique 3: Look for transformational change


Transformational change is radical and has far-reaching consequences. It could radically alter the structure of an organisation and consequently a person’s life and well-being. Organisational metamorphosis is when the structure, culture and strategies being adopted shift the very foundation on which the organisation is standing. The aim of transformational change is to create a new beast; therefore, it is impossible to ignore your staff group and how they are impacted by large-scale transformation.


From an emotional standpoint transformation requires a new way of thinking and a new set of behaviours. The chief executive, directors, first-line managers, supervisors and staff must adapt and change their mindset in order to accommodate this all-encompassing change. In order for staff to reach a stage of transformation their needs must be met. Maslow’s hierarchy has stood the test of time because he showed that people’s psychological needs are at the forefront of any transformational change and is what motivates them to make significant shifts. This means that leaders must first pay attention to the most basic human needs of their staff, this includes helping them to feel a sense of safety, security, belonging and self-esteem. The technique is to give staff permission to express their needs, their fears and anxieties. In this way, it is not only the organisation that is being transformed but its staff as well.


Technique 4: Encourage learning transfer


Human development is of key importance in any organisation and especially those going through change. Today we have departments within organisations called Human Recourses, but I wish they would call them Human Development. When emphasis is placed on human development it recognises that each staff member needs to be given opportunities to develop by helping them to realise that all learning is transferrable. It is essential to place emphasis on helping staff to use old skills and simultaneously develop new skills, knowledge and abilities. This will help them to shift their thinking from what is not so good about change to what is good and beneficial for them. Encourage learning transfer by helping your staff build on their existing skills. Value the knowledge and skills they possess and how they can use them in their new environment. This is a technique that will assist them in finding their way and thereby sustain their emotional well-being. It is only by giving them permission to learn new ways of practising that they will move along a continuum that is consistent with organisational growth and development. From the onset of the change therapeutic interventions, and coaching should be actively offered to staff to help them accommodate change and develop in line with its new ideology. Team Away Days are also a good way for staff to participate by sharing their ideas within a group setting as opposed to gossiping in corridors.


Technique 5: Apply bottom-up thinking


There are two strategies that organisations frequently use when they are going through change, but by far the least effective is the top-down approach. Staff often complain about the top-down approach because it does not invite collaboration and is based on the assumption that it is the prerogative of managers to make decisions because they know best and should therefore hand down decisions to those on the shop floor. It excludes and isolates staff at a time when they are feeling most vulnerable. It leads to de-skilling and disempowerment. On the other hand, the bottom-up approach seeks to gain involvement from staff and will aim to discover how they will be affected by the process of change. A good analogy is to apply the concept of an orchestra. The conductor has a critical role to play as the leader but without the musicians playing their part and making their contribution the orchestra will not harmonise. During times of change, people’s emotions play a part in how much can be accomplished and how effective and long-lasting the change will be. DiClemente and Prochaska argue that there are five stages that accompany change. These stages begin with pre-contemplation and eventually end with acceptance. In between the stages, people regress and lose their sense of stability. It takes time for change to take place because they are also going through emotions that impact their ability to reach a stage of acceptance.


Technique 6: Think about emotional safety


Emotional safety is a key function within organisational change but it tends to be ignored at the expense of making strategic and managerial decisions. Emotional safety gives people permission to express their fears, anxieties and misgivings even in a climate of chaos and uncertainty.


A strategy that can work well is to introduce change in increments. This is an approach that focuses on problem resolution and risk reduction. It is true that all change produces disruption of one form or another, but it can be ameliorated by reducing its impact on people’s emotional well-being. Here is an apt example. Recently I was travelling to Jersey and I needed wheelchair assistance. Since there were long delays, I asked why this was happening. I found it interesting to hear the workers saying that the source of their problems was the management. They pointed to changes in the structure of the airport which gave no thought to their health and well-being. This made them disgruntled, frustrated and angry. Give stability and safety in the midst of change and remain aware of its emotional impact.


Sum up


It is impossible to avoid transitions because they are a fundamental part of life, they happen from the day we are born until the day we die. Transitions can be positive or negative depending on how we experience them and how they are managed. In order to help people, cope with transitions every factor that is related to their well-being, environment, and emotional state of mind, as well as their relationships must be taken into account.


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Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway Brainz Magazine
 

Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr Lynda Ince-Greenaway began her career in 1982 when she qualified as a social worker. After making child-care her specialism, she became a team leader and a manager. She has worked for forty years in the public and private social care sectors making a significant contribution to the development and learning of others. In her role as a manager, she developed leadership skills which she has used to teach and influence others. She became an educationalist working as a lecturer for many years. As a life coach, keynote speaker and author Dr Ince-Greenaway is known for her enthusiasm and passion concerning such issues as leadership, social justice, social inclusion, empowerment, personal development as well as the development of others.

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