Change Leadership and the Role of Emotions

🕑 7 minutes read | Jul 14 2022 | By Lynn Whitney Turner, TTA Learning Consultant

Historically, Change Leadership seemed to be a competence reserved only for the C-Suite. However, in today’s world, the ability to be agile is a skill that every level of the organization needs to embrace. The reason relates to the pace of today’s change. Once upon a time, leaders had the luxury of time to make effective change. In today’s world, change is being thrown at us at a much faster pace from all directions making it impossible for one individual or one level of individuals to manage effectively. To be competitive in today’s world, building agility throughout the organization is key!

While many equate mergers and acquisitions, new regulations, or new leadership when thinking about Change Management, there are many other areas that can fall under this including relocation, moving into a new building, adopting new technology or changing certain systems, processes, or organizational structures, to name a few.

In today’s world, individuals and especially leaders need to understand change better and especially the emotions related to change. Humans are emotional beings with logic. Therefore, we lead with emotion and the closer individuals are to the specific change, the more intense the emotion. These emotions to change or the transition within the change are like that of the grieving process. William Bridges wrote

“It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.”

In Bridges work, he describes the process in three stages – The Ending, the Neutral Zone, and the Beginning. Within an Ending, whatever “was” must come to an end. This ending causes individuals to grieve what they are letting go of. But before they can begin with the new, they must go through a neutral zone. The neutral zone involves critical psychological realignments and repatterning takes place to make sense of the change. The Beginning will only take place after people have come to terms with the change and are ready to make the emotional commitment to do things the new way. As emotional beings with logic, we can get attached to all sorts of things. For instance, I had a gentleman joke about changing the coffee maker in his office from a standard Keurig to a fancy cappuccino-coffee maker. This was a huge emotional event for some of the individuals in that company. “Change my coffee maker? WHAT? Who would do such a thing?” It sounds funny but people can get extremely attached to all sorts of things that may seem ridiculous to others. Understanding the change process and the emotions related to the process can help organizations move changes forward in a more productive manner.

Change and the Pandemic

The pandemic helped us understand the change process on a grand scale. Individuals went through the change process very differently. The best analogy to describe it was that while we were all in the same storm (the pandemic), we were not all in the same boat (individual circumstance/situation). Therefore, we each experienced the transition very differently. For some, the pandemic helped shift some mindsets from seeing things that were once viewed as impossible to possible. Remote work is one example. Prior to the pandemic, many thought it could not be done. Once forced into it, many found remote work could be done and be done fairly well. That is how I began specializing in Virtual Collaborations. I was forced into the virtual world but wanted to create a better experience beyond the Brady Bunch squares of Zoom. Seeing an opportunity for new learning, I got certified in Facilitating Virtual Collaborations. Others struggled with this idea and were isolated from physical contact due to the need for social distancing. It truly played on their psyche. This is where the emotions of transitions affect the mindset and/or thinking.

Our Thinking within the Stages of Transition

The initial stage of shock and denial leaves us thinking “this can’t be happening!” In the Resistance Stage, our thoughts move to “why should I have to change?” Both modes of thought dwell in a negative, scarcity mentality where individuals become more narrow or close-minded and develop “stinking thinking” which leads to poor choices. As people begin to transition through the change to the exploration stage, their thoughts sound more like “how could this work for me?” Once individuals begin to experiment with trying new things and finding new meaning, they become more open-minded and are able to see more opportunities. This leads them to the Adaptation/Commitment stage. These stages operate from a positive, abundance mentality which leads to better choices and decisions.

In facilitating various monthly business roundtables during the pandemic, I found these different thoughts and mindsets at play while observing three distinct Camps.

  • Camp 1 were those organizations that were already working remotely, so they experienced little disruption and/or resistance because there was no change to how they normally operated.
  • Camp 2 were those businesses that were essential. They did not have an option for remote work, such as manufacturing, construction, etc. These businesses focused on controlling what they could control which was their internal environment. By limiting the external elements that were out of their control and focusing on what they could control, they figured out how to make work safe for their employees to get their jobs done without fear. Once they figured out how it could be done, they started moving forward. The key was in the language “how will we make this work” not “why this won’t work.”
  • Camp 3 were those that were forced to pivot to remote but did not know how to manage it. This group had a very difficult time, and some still struggle with it. Again, it ties back to the language. Those organizations that use the language of “This won’t work here” or “Why do we have to change?” have not let go of “what was” and therefore are unable to adopt new thinking and/or action.

One owner whose business had to pivot to remote work was extremely concerned about the mental well-being of her team and how they were spending their time at home being constantly bombarded with negative messages on the TV, radio, and social media. She had no control over them, and remote work was new to all of them. She could not wait to get them back into the office where she felt she had more control. Because they had not figured out “how to make remote work” for them nor were they necessarily interested, it was not successful.

Our Thoughts Lead Our Actions

For change to be successful, someone must be willing to champion the cause and create a sense of urgency or a compelling reason for the change. Otherwise, efforts will be fruitless. In addition, finding others that believe in the change is key to pushing your change efforts forward. John Kotter, Harvard Professor and best-selling author on Change, refers to this as a “Guiding Coalition.” As the saying goes, “it takes a village.” And when it comes to creating change, a village is required. Individuals feel more comfortable when they know their peers or those they trust and respect believe in the change. Having a “village” also helps create accountability to help others from slipping back into old behaviors or habits and adapt the new behaviors and/or actions.

Inspiring Teams through Innovation and Innovative Mindsets

The other thing about the pandemic is it sped up innovation and innovative thinking moving mindsets from “this will never work” to “how can we make this work” to “how can we make this even better.” This type of thinking can bring people, teams, and organizations together to rally behind the same cause which can be energizing. Survival can be a real motivator that can either bring people together. However, it can also tear them apart if they are not in agreement on the direction. For any change initiative to be successful, commitment is necessary. Without commitment and an understanding of why the change is necessary, emotions will run rampant and sabotage the best efforts.

Understanding Sentiment for Success

Gaining an understanding of the overall sentiment of your change initiative can be helpful in effectively managing the process based on emotions. Regular check-ins or surveys can help gain this crucial feedback. Human experience campaigns can also be helpful. Some utilize AI (Artificial Intelligence) to sort through the common themes of sentiment allowing organizations to remedy the situation before the change initiative gets completely thwarted.

Remember humans are emotional beings with logic. Therefore, emotions fuel thoughts that drive behavior. If you want success with your change initiatives, understanding the emotional stages of transition that affect our thinking and the emotional sentiment around your initiative are paramount!

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