To Manage Change, Recognize That It Entails Loss

Adjusting to change entails coming to terms with loss. Keep that in mind if you want to ease the challenge people face in coping with change. In this article, Naomi Karten describes someone who never learned this lesson and what he might have done differently.

Many years ago, shortly after I started a new IT job, upper management decided that the company was going to switch to a new technology platform—one that would entail a massive conversion effort and a new way of doing nearly everything. I wasn’t alone in being mortified. My co-workers were shocked, upset, and angry. We were emotionally invested in the existing platform. It was the more popular platform, the more versatile, and the one with better job opportunities. It was what we knew. It was who we were.

To set the stage for the transition, management invited Rob, a vendor who represented the new platform, to give us an overview and prepare us for the transition. Rob came charging in, eager to tell us about “his way.” He described its capabilities. He touted its benefits. He showed examples of how much quicker, faster, and better it would be. He couldn’t wait for us to experience it for ourselves.

The more he talked, the more irate we became. People pelted him with questions. They challenged every feature he described and became increasingly enraged at his conviction that “his way” was the better way. Not to be deterred, he enthused and he gushed, outlining things we’d be able to do that we couldn’t do with the current platform.

Rob wasn’t responsible for our hostile reaction. At the same time, he didn’t understand that change entails loss. He was charged up about what we were about to gain and totally unaware that we were grieving over what we were about to lose. And that’s a mistake many people make in managing change.

Grieving is a process usually associated with death of a loved one. But grieving isn’t limited to death or to the loss of a person. And it’s not limited to loss in our personal lives. Grieving is equally relevant to loss in the workplace, such as the loss of security, familiar daily patterns, communication channels, friends who are terminated or transferred, and, especially, the loss of identity and a sense of belonging. With the loss of a technology platform, even one that at times drove us crazy, we were facing a loss of identity.

In fact, giving up almost anything you cherish is a form of loss, and that’s the case whether you give it up voluntarily or, as with this technology change, you have no say in the matter. Even something positive, such as a promotion or new job, can entail a feeling of loss because it means giving up familiar ways of doing work and the relationships associated with the previous job or position. In all these instances, people may need to grieve.

In a book I read, I was fascinated to learn about a South Seas Island language that has separate words for different varieties of loss:

  • Loss of a person by death, as we mean it in English.
  • Loss of a small object, which most likely has been replaced.
  • Loss of a large object, such as one that has been stolen or destroyed.
  • Loss of a situation or a way of life, such as your job or location.
  • Loss of a state of mind or state of being, such as loss of security, success, or happiness.

I don’t know which word the language would have used for a loss of both a way of life and a state of being, because that’s what our accustomed technology platform was to us.

In English, in any case, we have just the single word, loss. But regardless of the language, coping with loss can take a toll on those affected. Therefore, if you’re introducing a change or in charge of its implementation, it’s a mistake to ignore, belittle, or trivialize the loss. It’s a mistake to excessively tout the benefits and the whoop-de-do associated with the new way as if everyone is breathlessly awaiting its arrival. And it’s a mistake to focus entirely on what’s being changed and to be oblivious to the people affected by the change.

Rob was probably counting the seconds till he could finish his presentation and be done with us. But he might have triggered less anger if he had started by acknowledging that many of us were distressed by the change; he didn’t have to know for a fact that we were distressed to make the reasonable assumption that we were.

In addition, he could have displayed empathy for the fact that we were giving up something that was part of who we were. To show he understood what we were dealing with, he might have offered an experience he’d had in which he had to give up something he cherished. Instead of ignoring what we were giving up, he might have begun by citing things the two platforms had in common. By displaying respect for what we were experiencing and honoring what was soon to become our past, he might have triggered less hostility from the group.

Shakespeare said, “Praising what is lost makes the remembrance dear.” Indeed, a little praise of our current platform might have taken the edge off our aggressive reaction and led us to listen to information that, like it or not, we were going to need.

In Rob’s mind, we were probably just a bunch of rude, obstreperous techies. Fortunately for him, he had to face us for only a couple of hours. Our management, however, didn’t seem to know any more than Rob about helping people cope with loss. But that’s the subject of another article.

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