The Emotional Barriers to Change

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by Scott Brown

Effectively managing change can be a tough task.  Because humans are such complicated creatures, any successful change effort should address a number of different issues.  It has to address the processes necessary for the change to take root in the organization’s culture.  It has to help individuals behave differently, in ways that support these new processes.  Perhaps most importantly, successful change efforts address the emotional turmoil caused by any major change initiative.

In the early 1990’s, the concept of facilitating emotional transition was introduced by Dr. William Bridges, who has since became recognized as the leading expert on how to transition an “individual’s psychological state” during any change process.  Bridges opened his book, Managing Transitions, by introducing a simple but powerful premise.  He stated, “Change is situational, but transition is a psychological process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the new situation that change brings about”.  He proposed a three-stage model to help people understand and adapt to the psychological barriers associated with any change.

  • Begin with an ending – “Let go of the old ways and the old identity with which people 120px-Sunset_in_Coquitlamhad grown comfortable”.   Before anyone is willing to accept a new reality, individuals have to find their way through a period of grief associated with losing a part of how they personally identified themselves.  Whether the old way was beneficial or not, individuals were comfortable because they could reasonably predict what would happen in certain situations.  They may have hated their situation, but at least they could predict it.  It may have been completely illogical for an individual to be comfortable in the situation, but there was comfort nonetheless.  Before managers and leaders can hope for any change to occur, they have to help their people willingly to discard the baggage they are carrying around with them.  While this stage in the change process may be more interesting when someone struggles to move past an unhealthy situation, it is not limited to people holding onto irrational baggage.  Some employees have a seemingly unlimited reserve of positive experiences rooted in the old way.  Letting go of such positive experiences can be even more difficult for individuals because the old way brought such joy and success.  This is especially common during reorganization efforts, when well-respected supervisors are replaced, or when individuals have to leave an emotionally significant location.  Regardless of what an individual is giving up, successful change managers demonstrate the ability to diligently manage the process of helping others let go of what was, in order to fully accept what will be.

By definition, every change involves moving from one situation to another.  During this move, people inevitably lose something important to them.  Help your people through this difficult time by honoring the past for all that it allowed them to do.  Resist any urge to dismiss their feelings.  Then help your people understand the full scope of your change.  Help them understand exactly what is changing, and what is staying the same.   Describe the limits of where this change affects them as individuals, where it affects the organization, and how it affects their customers or clients.

All employees will grieve their loss in some way.  Some people grieve internally, while others grieve externally.  Show empathy by listening to their concerns and stories.  Let them vent and process their loss in their own way, as long as that way is not detrimental to others.  Their losses are personal to them as individuals.  It doesn’t matter if you feel the same way or if you can relate to their loss.  What matters most to them is how you react to their loss.

To help individuals move past their grieving process, consider marking the beginning of the change process with some sort of event celebrating the ending of what was.  Celebrate the past and the possibilities for the future.  If the change involves some tangible change, find a way to give a little piece of the past to your people to help them remember the past.  After the celebration is over, help them come to terms with their loss and to find meaning in the new beginning by helping them traverse “the neutral zone”.

  • The Neutral Zone – Bridges describes this in-between state as “where the old ways have been discarded and the new ways have not yet taken root”.  He characterizes this time as being ripe with the “opportunity for great innovation and creativity, but also for great confusion and incongruity”. This stage is by far the longest phase of the transition process, and a journey from which not everyone emerges.  The neutral zone is an area of tremendous anxiety for many people.  There is nothing from the past to grab onto, and the future has not yet materialized.  Employees seem to be continually grasping at straws.

Because they don’t have anything to grab onto yet, employees have the unique opportunity to create their new reality in their own image.  Giving them the freedom to do and become whatever they want, as long as it fits into the new reality, provides individuals with a freedom to think unencumbered by the past and unrestricted by the way things have always been done.  This is the perfect time to encourage others to try something, fail, learn from their mistakes and successes, and then start the whole process all over again.

Bridges warns of the possibility of long dormant issues to resurface because the change has exposed raw emotions that may have been buried in their comfort zone.  The scars that held slowly simmering issues right under the surface can be easily broken open, allowing past issues to resurface.  Recognize this reemergence of issues as an opportunity to resolve these challenges in a new way that can put them to rest once and for all.  Sometimes pulling the band-aid off allows people to look at simmering issues with new eyes, and allows them to invent solutions they had not been able to see before.  As your people traverse this area of uncertainty, demonstrate patience.  Actively listen and be a resource to help them work through their reservations and fears.  They need your strength and communication to help them find a new normal.

  • End with a beginning – Bridges describes this final stage as “where the new behaviors and processes of the change begin to become entrenched in the organizations norms, stories, and behaviors as the new way of working “.  A release of energy as your people finally find peace with your change may symbolize a final 90px-Morning_Sky_7transition to the new beginning.  All of a sudden, one employee after another will begin to recognize the positives to the change and will move quickly and passionately towards a new identity.  Their fear and uncertainty, which they experienced so dramatically in the neutral zone, seems suddenly replaced by optimism and excitement.

This new beginning provides leaders and managers with another opportunity to celebrate the journey their people have just completed.  While every change is different, the best rule of thumb is to wait until you feel a palpable excitement coming from your people.  Wait until the tipping point, where the mass of your constituent base is onboard with the change.  When you reach this tipping point, throw a party; celebrate in a way that nobody can mistake it as anything but recognition of a new era.

Some changes lend themselves to specific celebration time lines – the opening of a store, the moving of an office, the earning of a promotion.  Regardless of the timing, the meaning behind the celebration is simple – we are on our way to the future now.  You can keep the successes going by helping your employees continue to accomplish short-term goals.  Low hanging fruit reinforces why this change is important and helps to keep pushing the emotional flywheel forward.

Leaders that successfully traverse the emotional minefields of any significant change initiative are far more likely to experience long-term success and less backsliding of their work.  Even when people know their situation is unhealthy, it can be very comfortable.  Most people don’t change because of logic, they change because somehow the change resonates emotionally with them.  Give them the chance to grieve. Mark the end of their current reality with some sort of signature event.  Help them traverse the unknown as they find their way through the desert of the Neutral Zone.  Finally, mark their new beginning with another signature event, celebrating their journey.  When you are able to help your people successfully traverse their emotional transition during a change process, you will find your people are quicker to accept new processes, procedures and behavioral expectations of any change initiative.

Best regards,

Scott Brown, President, The Hardie Consulting Group

Bio:  Scott Brown founded The Hardie Consulting Group, an organizational behavioral consulting firm, to address the people challenges faced by organizations of all sizes.  After more than twenty years climbing the corporate HR and OD ladders, Scott felt compelled to apply all he knows about employee engagement, leadership and management, to a wider audience of organizations and individuals.  In addition to his more than two decades of leadership and management experience, Scott earned a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership from Palm Beach Atlantic University, and a Senior Professional of Human Resources designation from the Society of Human Resource Management.  Follow Scott on Twitter @Scott_H_Brown, or through his blog at http://solvingthepeoplepuzzle.blogspot.com/.  Interested in learning how The Hardie Consulting Group can help either you personally, or can help your organization?  Check out www.HardieConsulting.com for more details.

 

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4 Responses to The Emotional Barriers to Change

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  2. Jackie Isaacs says:

    Excellent article. Many of our processes change frequently and rapidly in health care. Supporting staff through each transition is necessary and helps to build a cohesive team. Thank you!

  3. Beth_Boynton_RN_MS says:

    Hi Scott,
    This is a fantastic article and speaking as a nurse with over 25 years of direct care experience and an OD consultant I believe that leaders who integrate your advise with culture or other change efforts will find that they are able to engage nurses really quickly. Many times changes, such as those involving professional conduct are headed in the direction of building respect, but without some step that honors the old and generally dysfunctional dynamics, it is really hard to trust and move on. Leaders may worry that staff will get stuck in of bickering and ranting or that it will take a lot of time, but with expert facilitation organizations or teams often move quickly through it, don’t you think? And the time spent here is well spent. If there are a couple of very resistant staff their informal power will diminish and perhaps some individual coaching might be helpful or eventual parting of the ways. Without the steps you suggest, this informal power and mistrust have a lot of traction and resistance very frustrating to even the most collaborative leaders.

What are your thoughts?