It is so common to hear that people hate change, that they can’t handle change or that they resist change…that it’s almost become an accepted fact.
But the truth is: People handle change quite well.
Granted that’s a tremendous over-simplification. The type of change, when it happens, how significant and permanent, brought about by whom, are all very important variables to consider before making such a blanket statement. But if we’re talking about the types of workplace changes to strategy, structure, procedures, people, etc., that change management gurus typically address…then the truth applies. People are pretty open to change and are really quite resilient.
But here’s the rub…and Lesson #2 is based on this bit of wisdom:
There is a nearly universal tendency to under-estimate people’s’ ability to handle change and over-estimate their ability to handle ambiguity or uncertainty.
It’s not the change that freaks people out, it’s the period of not knowing. Most of us can handle anything. By the time we’re adults we’ve already survived humongous amounts of change. We press on and make the most of it when we learn the new reality.
But adjusting to the new reality is the easy part. The challenge, and the part that leaders of organizations tend to botch – is the informational stage, relentlessly and repeatedly communicating details about impending or ongoing changes.
What I’ve seen quite often in organizations is a vicious cycle of mishandling change. A leader or leadership team believes and expects a negative reaction to a new idea or proposed change. Because they believe that people can’t handle change or need time to adjust, they slowly introduce it, or float the idea while delaying its full implementation. But by only sharing a glimpse of a change, or slowly and partly introducing a change without providing more information and details, the leaders all but assure widespread stress and angst. This upset, caused more by the “not knowing” than the “change”– perpetuates the belief that people cannot handle change, and creates the likelihood that changes will be poorly implemented, delayed and poorly handled in the future.
Think about change in your own life. Changes large and small occur all the time, in all facets of your life, and many you have little or no power over. Some you may like some you may not, but you adapt, in some way or other, once you know the new reality. The most difficult times are when you know something is changing or about to change — but you lack the details to plan or you’re uncertain of its impact, so you cannot adjust and get on with your life. Less than the change itself, it is usually the period of “not knowing” that makes change so difficult.
The lesson? As leaders we need to understand that people can handle change, they may not embrace the change with open arms, they may initially react in a negative way, or they may provide contrary ideas, but over relatively brief periods of time people will adjust once they have information about what the change is and in what ways it will affect them. In most cases it is best to treat people as adults and share as much as you can when you can. Holding back accurate details creates an informational vacuum that quickly fills with harmful misinformation, rumor and speculation – often more dangerous and difficult to deal with the facts.
Over-simplified? Maybe. But if you’re going to err…err on the side of respecting people as adults who’ve already faced and effectively dealt with a lot of changes in their lives. Try it – the truth may set you free!