Change – Friend or Foe?

Six months ago I was trying to convince an audience at a talk I was giving on "Coping Skills for Teams" that, despite record low unemployment, the number of workers who feared job loss had doubled in the last decade. Today, there are daily reports of new layoffs and no one needs convincing. Change is a fact of life in business. If you don’t think things are changing, check your pulse—you may be dead!

Change is a constant in living beings. The problem we face in our current world is the increasing rate of change. Information available to us is overwhelming and increasing at an astounding rate. New technology is often obsolete in 24 months. The Internet is estimated to double in size every 18 months. Even "fads" are rising and being discarded more quickly these days. 

This pace of change has important implications for us.

Will change be our friend or our foe?

Change as a friend 

~ People seek change
~ Efforts to bring about change spark creative ideas
~ Opportunities for growth are inherent in the need for change

Human beings need change (as do all living things) to grow. When our lives are too static, we look for something novel to spark our interest.  

If you need proof of this, capture a 9-year-old and his 6-year-old sister, put them in the back seat of your car and take them on a 3-hour drive. As boredom sets in they will do something (usually starting an argument with each other) that will spark some excitement and get your full and undivided attention. 

Too little change—boredom—results in an effort to discover something that will be new or different. This need for change is at the root of creativity. Human beings need creative outlets. We thrive on them. We search for them. We create them.
New business opportunities grow out of this need for change. New products and services capitalize on the human need for change. "New and Improved." It is a cliché that is based in real life experience.

Change as foe 
~ We loose sight of the "big picture" and concentrate only on what seems threatening to us in the face of overwhelming change;
~ At the same time, we have a desire to avoid what is threatening (which often results in ruminative thoughts about what we fear with no effective action to rectify the situation—a bad combination);
~ We resist additional change, even if it would help to resolve the current dilemma; and
~ We limit the amount of new information we take in about the situation.

As much as humans need change, we have limits. Too much change is as difficult to endure as too little. We become engulfed by excessive change. We become resistant. 

Do you remember the last time you woke at 3 AM? What did you think about? In my experience, this is the time when I am besieged by what overwhelms me. I think about the projects that are late, the paperwork sitting on my desk, or the phone call I forgot to return. I worry about my ability to meet the demands on me in the time I have available.

The emotion that is most associated with too much change is anxiety. When we feel anxious, several things happen as a consequence: 

If these reactions occur in us, they will occur in our employees as well. In the workplace, the tension between too little change and too much change is always present. 

Some are reacting to boredom and "acting out" to capture our full and undivided attention. 

For others, performance is disintegrating in the face of overwhelming trials. 

All of this is also affected by what is happening in their lives outside work, if this were not complicated enough already.

Befriending Change 

Facing change and befriending it, requires developing important skills. 

~ Talking openly about change
~ Gathering realistic information
~ Following through on a course of action

We must be ready to face the anxieties that change brings. Ignoring anxiety about change is not only a bad idea; it is not a possibility. Our survival as a species has depended on taking our anxieties seriously. Humans in the savannahs of Africa who did not attend to their anxieties were easy prey. The cowards among them lived to have babies. That means we are descended from a long line of cowards. Despite our attempts to escape our anxieties or keep our minds occupied elsewhere, when we are anxious our bodies know it and suffer as a result. Our organizations know it too, and when the anxieties associated with our business are not faces, our organizations suffer.

When we are anxious we must first acknowledge our fear. It is not wrong to be afraid. Not every change is good. (For example, anyone had a "new" Coca Cola lately?) Openly talking about change at the organizational level and eliciting discussions about the accompanying fear can be difficult but rewarding. Talking about change allows people to feel in more control, which reduces anxiety and increase active problem solving thoughts rather than attempts to avoid.

At the same time, not every anxiety is real. When we feel anxious we need to take the opportunity to gather some information. Information helps us to judge the magnitude of the threat. When we are afraid we overestimate risk. Knowledge helps us to make more accurate judgments about the actual risks. One way to gather information is to listen to our workforce. The often-conflicting information can be difficult to sort through and should not be done in isolation from other sources of knowledge, but frequently the ideas of employees can be an invaluable resource.

After acknowledging the fear and gathering information about the real risks, we still need to be willing to make a decision and allow for the anxiety without foiling our willingness to act. The anxiety is never really resolved until we take some action and discover for our self what we learn from our choice. When we learn something, change has become our friend.