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Coping with Change: Develop Your Personal Strategy
Why do we resist change?
As the saying goes, the only people who like change are busy cashiers and wet babies. We find change disorienting, creating within us an anxiety similar to culture shock, the unease visitors to an alien land feel because of the absence of the familiar cues they took for granted back home. With an established routine, we don’t have to think! And thinking is hard work.
Change is a business fact of life
Is your company is currently undergoing major changes that will affect the lives of all of its employees? These changes are probably in response to the evolving needs of your customers. They are made possible because of improvements in telecommunications and digital technology. They are likely guided by accepted principles and practices of total quality management. And you can expect that they will result in significant improvements profitability–a success that all employees will share. Because our customers’ needs are NOW, we must make changes swiftly, which means that all of us must cooperate with the changes, rather than resist them.
How do we resist change?
We tend to respond to change the same way we respond to anything we perceive as a threat: by flight or fight. Our first reaction is flight–we try to avoid change if we can. We do what futurist Faith Popcorn calls “cocooning”: we seal ourselves off from those around us and try to ignore what is happening. This can happen in the workplace just by being passive. We don’t volunteer for teams or committees; we don’t make suggestions, ask questions, or offer constructive criticism. But the changes ahead are inescapable. Those who “cocoon” themselves will be left behind.
Even worse is to fight, to actively resist change. Resistance tactics might include negativity, destructive criticism, and even sabotage. If this seldom happens at your company, you are fortunate.
Take a different approach to change
Rejecting both alternatives of flight or flight, we seek a better option–one that neither avoids change nor resists it, but harnesses and guides it.
Change can be the means to your goals, not a barrier to them.
Both fight and flight are reactions to perceiving change as a threat. But if we can change our perceptions, we can avoid those reactions. An old proverb goes, “Every change brings an opportunity.” In other words, we must learn to see change as a means of achieving our goals, not a barrier preventing us from reaching them.
Another way of expressing the same thought is: A change in my external circumstances provides me with an opportunity to grow as a human being. The greater the change is, the greater and faster I can grow. If we can perceive change along these lines, we will find it exciting and energizing, rather than depressing and debilitating.
Yet this restructuring of our perspective on change can take some time. In fact, coping with change follows the same steps as the grieving process.1 The steps are shock and denial that the old routine must be left behind, then anger that change is inevitable, then despair and a longing for the old ways, eventually replaced by acceptance of the new and a brighter view of the future. Everyone works through this process; for some, the transition is lightning fast, for others painfully slow.
Realize your capacity to adapt.
As one writer put it recently:
Our foreparents lived through sea changes, upheavals so cataclysmic, so devastating we may never appreciate the fortitude and resilience required to survive them. The next time you feel resistant, think about them and about what they faced–and about what they fashioned from a fraction of the options we have. They blended old and new worlds, creating family, language, cuisine and new life-affirming rhythms, and they encouraged their children to keep on stepping toward an unknown but malleable future.2
Human beings are created remarkably flexible, capable of adapting to a wide variety of environments and situations. Realizing this can help you to embrace and guide change rather than resisting or avoiding it.
Develop a coping strategy based on who you are.
Corporate employees typically follow one of four decision-making styles: analytical, directive, conceptual, and behavioral. These four styles, described in a book by Alan J. Rowe and Richard O. Mason,3 have the following characteristics:
Analytical Style – technical, logical, careful, methodical, needs much data, likes order, enjoys problem-solving, enjoys structure, enjoys scientific study, and enjoys working alone.
Conceptual Style – creative and artistic, future oriented, likes to brainstorm, wants independence, uses judgment, optimistic, uses ideas vs. data, looks at the big picture, rebellious and opinionated, and committed to principles or a vision.
Behavioral Style – supportive of others, empathetic, wants affiliation, nurtures others, communicates easily, uses instinct, avoids stress, avoids conflict, relies on feelings instead of data, and enjoys team/group efforts.
Directive Style – aggressive, acts rapidly, takes charge, persuasive and/or is manipulative, uses rules, needs power/status, impatient, productive, single-minded, and enjoys individual achievements.
Read once more through these descriptions and identify which style best describes you. Then find and study the strategy people who share your style follow to cope with change:
Analytical coping strategy – You see change as a challenging puzzle to be solved. You need plenty of time to gather information, analyze data, and draw conclusions. You will resist change if you are not given enough time to think it through.
Conceptual coping strategy – You are interested in how change fits into the big picture. You want to be involved in defining what needs to change and why. You will resist change if you feel excluded from participating in the change process.
Behavioral coping strategy – You want to know how everyone feels about the changes ahead. You work best when you know that the whole group is supportive of each other and that everyone champions the change process. If the change adversely affects someone in the group, you will perceive change as a crisis.
Directive coping strategy – You want specifics on how the change will affect you and what your own role will be during the change process. If you know the rules of the change process and the desired outcome, you will act rapidly and aggressively to achieve change goals. You resist change if the rules or anticipated results are not clearly defined.
Realizing what our normal decision-making style is, can enable us to develop personal change-coping tactics.
How can we cope with change?
1. Get the big picture. – Sometimes, not only do we miss the forest because of the trees, but we don’t even see the tree because we’re focused on the wood. Attaining a larger perspective can help all of us to cope with change, not just the conceptualists. The changes underway at my company are clearly following at least four important trends, which I believe are probably reflective of businesses in general:
- Away from localized work toward network-based work,
- Away from a feast-or-famine working environment toward a routinely busy working environment,
- Away from site-limited approaches toward approaches that are consistent company-wide, and
- Away from vertical, top-down management toward a more horizontal management structure, with shared accountability.
Getting at least this much comprehension of the big picture will help us to understand where each of us fits.
2. Do some anchoring. – When everything around you is in a state of flux, it sure helps to find something stable that isn’t going to change, no matter what. Your company’s values (whether articulated or not) can provide that kind of stability for you. Ours include the Company Family, Focus on the Customer, Be Committed to Quality, and Maintain Mutual Respect. These values are rock-solid; they are not going to disappear or rearrange themselves into something else. Plus, each of us has personal values that perhaps are even more significant and permanent. Such immovables can serve as anchors to help us ride out the storm.
3. Keep your expectations realistic. – A big part of taking control of the change you experience is to set your expectations. You can still maintain an optimistic outlook, but aim for what is realistically attainable. That way, the negatives that come along won’t be so overwhelming, and the positives will be an adrenaline rush. Here are some examples:
- There will be some bumps along the road. We shouldn’t expect all of the changes ahead to be painless, demanding only minimal sacrifice, cost, or effort. In fact, we should expect some dead ends, some breakdowns in communications, and some misunderstandings, despite our best efforts to avoid them. We may not be able to anticipate all of the problems ahead, but we can map out in general terms how we will deal with them.
- Not everyone will change at the same rate. The learning rates of any employees will distribute themselves along a bell curve. A few will adapt rapidly, most will take more time, and a few will adjust gradually. Also, many younger employees may find change, especially technological innovations, easier than those older. The reason may be, as one observer explains, “Older people’s hard disks are fuller.”4 On the other hand, you may find some younger ones surprisingly reluctant to take on a new challenge.
- The results of change may come more slowly than we would want. As participants in an “instant society,” conditioned by the media to expect complex problems to reach resolution in a 60-minute time frame, we may find the positive results of change slow to arrive from the distant horizon. If we are aware of this, we won’t be so disappointed if tomorrow’s results seem so similar to today’s.
4. Develop your own, personal change tactics. Get plenty of exercise, plenty of rest, and watch your diet. Even if you take all the right steps and follow the best advice, undergoing change creates stress in your life, and stress takes energy. Aware of this, you can compensate by taking special care of your body.
Invest time and energy in training. Sharpen your skills so that you can meet the challenges ahead with confidence. If the training you need is not available through Bowne, get it somewhere else, such as the community college or adult education program in your area.
Get help when you need it. If you are confused or overwhelmed with the changes swirling around you, ask for help. Your supervisor, manager, or coworkers may be able to assist you in adjusting to the changes taking place. Your human resources department and any company-provided counseling services are other resources available to you.
Make sure the change does not compromise either your company values or your personal ones. If you are not careful, the technological advances jostling each other for your attention and adoption will tend to isolate you from personal contact with your coworkers and customers. E-mail, teleconference, voice-mail, and Intranet can make us more in touch with each other, or they can keep us antiseptically detached, removed from an awareness that the digital signals we are sending reach and influence another flesh-and-blood human being.
Aware of this tendency, we must actively counteract the drift in this direction by taking an interest in people and opening up ourselves to them in return. We have to remember to invest in people–all of those around us–not just in technology.
The “new normalcy”
Ultimately, we may discover that the current state of flux is permanent. After the events of September 11, Vice President Richard Cheney said we should accept the many resultant changes in daily life as permanent rather than temporary. “Think of them,” he recommended, “as the ‘new normalcy.'”
You should take the same approach to the changes happening at your workplace. These are not temporary adjustments until things get “back to normal.” They are probably the “new normalcy” of your life as a company. The sooner you can accept that these changes are permanent, the better you can cope with them all–and enjoy their positive results.
1. Nancy J. Barger and Linda K. Kirby, The Challenge of Change in Organizations: Helping Employees Thrive in the New Frontier (Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publ., 1995). This source is summarized in Mary M. Witherspoon, “Coping with Change,” Women in Business 52, 3 (May/June 2000): 22-25.
2. Susan Taylor, “Embracing Change,” Essence (Feb. 2002): 5.
3. Alan J. Rowe and Richard O. Mason, Managing with Style: A Guide to Understanding, Assessing and Improving Decision-Making (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Management Series, 1987) cited in Witherspoon, “Coping with Change.”
4. Emily Friedman, “Creature Comforts,” Health Forum Journal 42, 3 (May/June 1999): 8-11. Futurist John Naisbitt has addressed this tendency in his book, High tech/high touch: Technology and our search for meaning (New York: Random House, 1999). Naisbitt co-wrote this book with his daughter Nana Naisbitt and Douglas Philips.
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