Receptiveness to Change

Everyone responds to change differently, whether managers know this or not. A good leader knows this, and doesn't hurt the morale of a team by expecting them to act a way that their incapable of, or that feels unnatural to them. Naomi Karten brings this all to light in this article.

When companies experience technological or organizational change, the people affected may feel like they're on a runaway rollercoaster. During these turbulent experiences, people may react in a multitude of different ways, some of which differ from their normal behavior. Being aware of the likelihood of these reactions to change is a key step in managing change effectively. In this week's column, Naomi Karten offers insight into the experience of change.

A company I visited had just completed a major reorganization--the kind where you'd swear they had tossed the boxes in the organization chart up into the air and the way they landed determined the new organization. It was a messy process with confusion galore.

When I met with Gary, an IT director in the company, he described the range of reactions employees were exhibiting as they settled into the new organization. Some people were angry. Some were grumpy. Some were enthused. Some were walking around as if in a fog. Some were taking the new organization in stride. You name the reaction, he'd seen it.

Gary seemed puzzled by the whole experience and asked me, "Do people respond differently to change?"

Despite his lofty level, Gary seemed unaware that people vary in their receptiveness to change and will exhibit a multitude of behaviors in responding to it. And he seemed surprised by the fact that people's behavior may be more extreme, or simply different, from their everyday behavior.

As it turns out, Gary is not alone; I've met other managers with a similar level of unawareness. But I don't believe that these managers are clueless about individual differences in behavior. More likely, they just don't anticipate so many differences emerging all at once, as if orchestrated by an invisible conductor of an out-of-tune orchestra. Despite being astute about individual differences in general, these managers didn't foresee such a visible expression of individual differences in situations of stress and confusion.

But it's not just the people in the upper echelons who misjudge or underestimate how people will respond to change. When it comes to technological and organizational change, people in positions from team leader on up often seem to proceed on the assumption that everyone will march forward in lockstep. Employees one and all will appreciate the change, welcome it, and embrace it.

Fair warning: This is unlikely to happen.

If you oversee the work of others, a starting point in guiding them through major change is to acknowledge and accept the fact that people react differently to change. The reasons they react differently are many, including differences in upbringing, personality, life experiences, and fear of the impact of the change.

You might think of receptiveness to change as a continuum. At the left end of the continuum are people who are strenuously unreceptive to change. These people want to keep doing things the same way no matter what. The very thought of giving up what for them is safe, familiar, and comfortable in favor of something new, unfamiliar, and possibly risky is unnerving. If they could, these people would latch themselves to the way things are right now and hang on tight.

I saw this reaction in a company that was not what you'd call a fast mover. It was the sort of place in which decisions that needed to be made this year regularly slipped until next year or the year after. Yet even within this turtle-like culture, Thomas, an IT manager, veered toward the left end of the continuum. Thomas was an easy-going sort, and if you had asked him if he liked change, he probably would have said he did; most people like to be thought of as open to change. But as a manager, Thomas wasn't. Whenever someone proposed a new project or a new way of tackling a technical problem or a new, well, anything, he swiftly found reasons to oppose the idea. The status quo was Thomas's favorite hangout.

At the right end of the continuum, by contrast, are people who thrive on change and get bored if two minutes pass without a change of some kind. These people often create problems in order to have something to fix. Doing anything that borders on the routine is positively mind numbing.

Al, an assistant vice president, fit this description. Like Thomas, he was easy going, but in a different way. For Al, change was fun, invigorating, and stimulating. Every crisis--and his company had many--was just another challenge to be tackled. If he could, he would have started new initiatives every day, and there was no idea so unthinkable that he wouldn't consider it if you wanted to make a case for it. Sometimes, when things got too dull for him, he stirred things up, such as by giving two managers conflicting information and then waiting to see if they figured it out.

Whether people are at the far ends of the continuum or, like most people, somewhere in between, significant change can pack a wallop. And please understand that a significant change is one that a particular individual or group experiences as significant, whether anyone else has the same reaction. So, I may experience a reorganization as a fascinating readjustment, whereas for you it's a kick-in-the-gut upheaval. You may experience the decision to acquire a new development tool as exciting, while I refuse to give up doing things the way in which I'm already proficient.

If you work in an organization that experiences change--and what organization doesn't?--you will be more effective in helping people adjust if you anticipate variations in their behavior in response to change. Gary was puzzled by the way people reacted, but there's no need for you to be, too.

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