Coping with change in the workplace

November 7, 2006
By: Vicki Bell

Change is constant in the workplace. Different people react to change in different ways. While some embrace change, others resist or stall the process to the detriment of themselves and their company. This article discusses how individuals can adapt to change more easily and minimize change-induced stress.

If you've been at your job for any length of time—say a day or two—you've experienced change in the workplace. Perhaps you've just adapted to a change only to find out the new order now is being changed. Your mind and body may be reeling from the stress associated with change, and while you may not be able to dictate what changes will occur and when, you can control how you handle and adapt to them. Reacting badly and drawing out the acceptance process can have a very negative effect on you, those whose lives you touch, and the company that employs you.

Although some changes may seem capricious—change simply for the sake of change— your company most likely puts a great deal of thought into any major change and even into those that may appear minor. Information about change management abounds, and some companies work hard to make sure that changes are enacted in the least upsetting manner for all involved. But even the best-planned changes can cause stress, unrest, and resistance among workers. Management and workers need to recognize the different reactions to change and deal with those that are stumbling blocks to progress.

Change Reactions

According to the Ottawa Business Journalarticle How Change Affects Teams, by Ruth Gmehlin, the four common, yet distinct, behavioral reactions to change are:

  • People who thrive on change—Direct, results-oriented people who embrace quick decisions and changes, challenge the status quo, and initiate change activity within [an organization].

  • People who aren't bothered by change—Optimists whose enthusiasm and creative solutions to handling change keep others motivated during flux situations.

  • People who resist change and need time to prepare—Steady decision-makers who don't like to be rushed and appear to "put up" with change.

  • People who are concerned with the effects of change—Cautious, careful objective thinkers who seek to maintain high standards, regardless of changes going on around them.

Which description fits you? Can you think of people in your workplace who fall into each of these behavioral types when confronted with change? Where do the majority of your co-workers fit?

Blessed—and probably nonexistent—is the company that employs only those who thrive on change or aren't bothered by it, and blessed are these types of workers. Change proceeds more smoothly in these companies, and these individuals suffer fewer negative effects from change.

Those who resist change and need too much time to prepare and those who become overly concerned with the effects of change to the point that they stall or derail the process can harm themselves and their companies.

Change-induced Stress

The article Dealing With Changeon states that "change is a major source of stress. Change challenges you to let go of the past, especially the comfortable, old ways of doing, to accept new challenges and opportunities for growth. There is an illusion that you can manage change by controlling the world around you, however, change is most effectively managed from within."

In times of stress, the mind and body revert to instinctive behaviors. If you naturally resist change, it can be very difficult to alter how you respond when confronted with even small changes. However, there are steps you can take to minimize your resistance, improve the way you handle change, and alleviate change-induced stress.

Recognizing Resistance

If you have identified yourself as being among those who automatically resist change—and you have lots of company—train yourself to be more mindful of your reactions. First, you must recognize and acknowledge your resistance. Are you resisting a change for a valid reason, or are you simply resisting because it is your nature to do so?

Some people who resist change are so negative and close-minded that they are unable or refuse to view changes objectively. They immediately resist and fail to look for the potential positive in the change.

Even when positive, change is uncomfortable, and discomfort breeds resistance. Some changes also can trigger an intense emotional response that clouds objectivity. For example, it is normal to feel sad when a favorite co-worker or manager leaves the company, and it can be difficult in the midst of sadness to see the opportunity for positive change, but it's there. Acknowledging and grieving the loss is healthy. Hanging on to any ill feelings about the loss and refusing to accept and get past it aren't.

Overcoming Resistance

Those who resist change do so for varying lengths of time. One of my former and favorite co-workers was notorious for resisting new ideas, unless they were her own. I learned early on that when I approached her with a request, the initial answer always would be no. However, I also learned that her resistance duration was short-lived. She quickly assumed objectivity; thought an idea over carefully; and if it had merit, she overcame her natural resistance, jumped in, and enthusiastically helped with the project. This is the kind of behavior change-resisters should strive to adopt.

Become aware of your reactions. (Even those who embrace change and those who thrive on change and those who usually aren't bothered by it can suffer initial resistance.) Take a mental step back and ask yourself whether you are reacting instinctively. If you recognize that you are automatically resisting the change and putting up a barrier to objectivity, drop the barrier, examine the change, find the positive—which may be the most difficult part of the process—and accept the change. Acceptance lowers your stress level.

Accepting Change

Accepting change does not mean that you must suffer gladly changes that have a negative impact on your job satisfaction. You simply have to accept the fact that a change is under way, and, if necessary, take the advice offered by Gale Loeffler in her article Dealing With Change: Examine your work environment. If possible, change what you don't like about your work environment or accept what you can't change. If you can do neither, then it's time for the big change: a change of jobs. When beginning a new job, re-examine the old. What worked that you would like to take to a new job? What should be left behind?"

Other guidelines Loeffler offers for coping with change are:

  • Develop support relationships at work and home. People with friends on whom they can rely during stressful times experience fewer negative effects of the stress change can bring. They also remain healthier, are more successful, and live longer.

  • Take care of yourself. Eat a balanced diet, exercise, and get enough rest. Take time to relax with friends and family. Enjoy your hobbies. Listen to your body. If you don't think these suggestions are important, look around at others who aren't using them. You'll soon discover just how important these basic wellness tips are.

  • Build self-esteem. There is only one you. You have special talents and interests. List what you like about yourself and note your special talents. Also, list what you appreciate about family and friends. Tell them and make them feel good, too.

  • Be open and flexible. Knowing that change can happen at any time helps you accept and adjust when it occurs. Most people are eager to settle into comfortable routines. Realize that your present routine may only be temporary.

  • Keep your "sunny side" up. The old song went something like, "Accent the positive and eliminate the negative. Keep on the sunny side of life." A positive attitude helps you feel good about yourself, goes a long way toward improving your health, and helps you deal with changes that come along.

  • Take control of your life. What can you do now that will help you cope with the changes in your life? Make a list of options. What are the positive and negative outcomes of each choice? Practice finding the good in each of life's changes. It's not what happens to you that causes you to be happy or unhappy; it's how you react to what happens. Your reaction governs the outcome. Take charge of your thoughts and actions.

Use resources available to you. Resources include self-help publications, support groups, friends, money, loving family members, special talents, good health, time, and a positive attitude. All of these resources and more can help when you're facing a change. Learn to recognize and use them.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209