Organizational Change: How anxiety erodes organizations
"Human behavior during times of change and/or scarcity or loss creates organizational risk." Change will cause stress and anxiety and turmoil, and people will react. It is human nature to do so. During such times it is essential for leaders to be.
One element that is often missing in how we think about leading significant organizational change is an understanding of the emotions involved and how these emotions can put an organization at risk if they are not constructively addressed. Typically, leaders focus on employee behavior without acknowledging that emotions play a role in creating certain behaviors.
For example, change can bring a reallocation or reduction of resources, a shift in focus and priorities, and increased accountabilities for employees who already feel stretched too thin. Even a sense of impending loss or scarcity can elicit strong fears as people imagine what their uncertain future might deliver. As change alters the nature of their work, people may hold on tightly to resources and information and become defensive, possessive, and competitive. Leaders should be aware that emotional responses will impact the work and the organization. The resulting behaviors increase organizational risk.
Too often I see leaders underestimate the necessity of providing proactive leadership in order to mitigate risk and avoid unresolved conflict, surprises, and costly mistakes.
Frequent and rapid change affects most people in many parts of their lives. An organizational change adds another layer of change and complexity to what employees are already trying to navigate at work and sometimes at home. The prospect of facing the challenge of doing something new and living with the unknown is difficult for most people and for some it is overwhelming. Anticipating and understanding these normal emotional reactions and addressing them constructively and openly is critical. These emotions drive behaviors and impact how the work will be done.
Anxiety can cause people to continue their familiar work activities rather than change their habits. Too often this leads to inadequate time for discussion between leaders and employees about the changes. Without discussion and dialogue, people cannot develop the understanding necessary to effectively implement the change or understand how they can or are expected to contribute to the change. Opportunities for insight, creativity, and innovation that lead to new perspectives and strategies get lost. Making the time to think deeply, look at situations in new ways, or work constructively with others often gets short-circuited.
Change creates anxiety and fear of loss. In my work helping executive leaders effectively direct organizational change, I have observed and heard directly from leaders about the following behaviors and outcomes:
All of the above behaviors place both the change effort and the organization at risk. Employee attitudes and behaviors serve as an important source of data for leaders; they provide clues about what people are experiencing and the resulting impact. This data can inform leaders about what people need from them at
various points in the change process.
What employees need most are:
(See the related article about effective engagement and how leaders can help employees understand and embrace changes.)
As a leader, it is important that you seek to understand the underlying dynamics among employees. Constantly ask yourself how the human dimension as well as the work is going, and directly address what is not working. It is helpful to remember, and to help others remember, that we all have a natural tendency, a gravitational pull, to go back to what is known and what we are comfortable with. Living with anxiety, tension, loss, and the unknown creates discomfort, but when we retreat to our areas of comfort we may lose opportunities to change.
Take a few minutes of quiet thinking:
© 2015 Evi Kahle. All rights reserved.
Evi Kahle, Executive Organizational and Leadership Expert, supports executive leaders to effectively direct organizational change, manage across boundaries, think and plan more strategically and engage people in change more effectively. Her clients include healthcare organizations, middle market and Fortune 500 companies. You are welcome to reprint this post as long as you include the above copyright and bio in full. Please contact Evi Kahle if you have any questions.