Read this in David Attenborough’s voice: “The human. A wonderful species. It thrives in almost any habitat: urban, rural, woodland or beach. Provided the habitat is stable, that is. After all, humans don’t like change. This is due to the survival instincts of this intelligent species. The human brain has evolved so that it craves calmness, stability and safety. Change equals danger in this kind of brain.”
As an HR professional or supervisor, you’ll undoubtedly come into contact with the human desire for stability. Organizations are constantly changing, and this isn’t always easy for employees. Even if these changes are positive.
In this article, psychologist Emma White is going to talk us through this topic. She explains why change is so difficult for people, how this plays out in practice within an organization, and what you can do as an HR manager or supervisor to support employees during organizational changes.
5 reasons why change is so difficult
Being able to manage change successfully is a skill you should never underestimate. If you manage change badly then there’s a good chance your employees will start jumping ship.
In order to manage change well, it’s important to understand why many people find change challenging. Obviously, this won’t apply to every employee (employees with a growth mindset actually thrive on change) but these general human tendencies can be a real obstacle when change is taking place. Let’s dive into the human brain:
1. Stepping out of our comfort zone feels overwhelming and scary
“Our brains are hardwired to protect us from danger. That’s just how they’ve evolved,” explains Emma. “Outside our comfort zone, we feel a degree of danger. We’re unfamiliar with the situation, we don’t know how to interpret other people’s behavior and this triggers our danger response.”
You probably already know how this danger response feels, your muscles tighten up, you get nervous, your breathing becomes shallow, and you think ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’. Emma: “This response is trying to lure you back into your comfort zone where everything is safe and familiar.” Sometimes this response is acute, for example during a tense job interview; sometimes it simmers away in the background, for example during your first weeks in a new team.
2. We focus on negative changes
“Humans have a negativity bias. We have a tendency to focus on the negative things in our lives,” says Emma. Think back on a recent wonderful experience and a recent unpleasant experience you had at work, for example. Of the two, which do you think about more often?
“It’s the same when it comes to change. In your career, positive and negative changes happen all the time. Our default reaction is to focus on the negative, which means we forget the positive changes,” says Emma. This reinforces our sense of discomfort or anxiety.
3. Change requires energy
Another survival mechanism we’ve gained through evolution is a need to conserve energy. “If we don’t consciously consider our actions, we have a tendency to choose the path of least resistance. We’re creatures of habit. It requires less energy,” explains Emma.
“When change approaches, we’re forced to do things differently. That goes against our need to conserve energy. And against our need for stability. This costs us an enormous amount of energy. That’s why we’d prefer to avoid it.”
4. We’re afraid of failure
“In my consultations, I often see people who are afraid of failure,” says Emma. “This fear increases when change occurs. The employee comes from a safe place, steps into the unknown, and suddenly has to figure out new ways of working. This might cause them stress because ‘maybe I can’t really do this’.”
“Limiting beliefs play a role here. We tell ourselves that we’re less capable than we really are. It’s a form of insecurity.”
5. We have little motivation to change
All four previous points come together here. Since our brains are trying to protect us from danger, we have a negativity bias, we have a need to conserve energy, and we’re afraid to fail, we’re not usually particularly keen to change things. There are exceptions here, of course.
These four tendencies reinforce each other in various ways. Since you’re inclined to retreat back into your comfort zone, chances are that you won’t adapt well to change, which intensifies your fear of failure. As a result, it requires more energy. Change then feels like a negative experience, which means your negativity bias comes into play.
Change in practice: how are employees affected?
You now understand why change can be a difficult phenomenon for human beings. As an HR manager or supervisor, it is therefore important to understand how this shows up in practice – in the workplace. Emma provides us with some examples below.
Fear related to their position in a new team
Uncomfortable in a new team
“One of my clients had to deal with an overhaul at work. She found herself on a new team, in a new department. Her colleges and supervisors made little effort to get to know her and onboard her. It wasn’t clear what her colleagues expected of her and how they were supposed to work together in her new team. As a result, she didn’t dare ask for help with her work, which had a negative impact on her performance and her mental health.”
Mismatch of goals and values
“Change is also associated with the larger goals we strive for in life. After a change, an employee might doubt if their job still fulfills them. This creates a lack of meaning or purpose. These are really important elements for good mental health. Clients who struggle with this often feel that they are losing control.”
Afraid of not keeping up with change
“Employees with limiting beliefs are afraid that they won’t be able to keep up with the change that’s taking place within their organization. For example, if they’ll have new responsibilities or need to adapt to new ways of working, they might be unsure that they’ll be able to handle it.”
Feeling like they’ve lost control
“If communication about organizational changes is vague, and along with that the shifting expectations related to these changes, then this creates the sense of a loss of control. People tend to overcompensate for this. For example, by working too hard and too much. This creates a false sense of control and requires a lot of energy from the employee.”
How to support employees during periods of change
There are a number of things you can do as an organization to help your employees get the most out of a period of change.
Communication is key
As already stated, people like to feel in control. Communication helps with this.
“Communicate clearly and in a timely manner about what is going to change for the employee. Consider team formations, responsibilities, salaries and evaluations,” says Emma. Communicating just the once won’t be enough for major changes. Keep your staff informed throughout the process.
“Due to the human negativity bias, make sure to focus on the benefits of this change when communicating, and go into detail about the reasons for the change,” says Emma. “But keep it transparent. Don’t make things out to be better than they are. In order to ensure that your employees still see the change as positive, compensate for every negative point by introducing two to three positive points.
“An effective way to communicate about change is using a roadmap. What will change in each phase? And how do you expect these changes to affect an employee’s roles and duties?” advises Emma. This roadmap can serve as a common thread though all of your communications. You’ll create a sense of familiarity, which will make people feel more in control.
“I often see clients who think that they are the only ones struggling with changes within their organization,” says Emma. “But that’s rarely the case. It takes away a lot of the stress when they realize they’re not alone and that it’s okay to struggle.” As an organization, it’s not just important to be open about the practical side of change, but also the emotional side.
Emma: “Make it clear where employees can go to share their thoughts and concerns. For example, a manager, counselor, HR, or maybe even special focus groups set up for this purpose.” Also make sure you’re regularly making space, for example during team meetings, to talk to each other about how everyone is getting on in the new situation. “As a manager or HR professional, it’s a good idea for you to also share what you’re finding difficult in these moments.” By doing this, you’ll create a safe atmosphere where people can talk about anything.
Offer tools for coping with change
Many employees would also like to discuss their concerns and insecurities with an external party. It feels safer and more anonymous. Or they’d prefer to start working through things alone. This means you need to offer employees the appropriate tools. Take a look at www.openup.com, where you’ll find lots of resources and self-help modules. Employees can also request one-on-one consultations and group consultations with one of the OpenUp psychologists.
Involve employees in the process as much as possible
“One client I spoke to a number of times was very frustrated with a process of change taking place within her organization. Meanwhile, she had lots of good ideas for how it could be done better,” explains Emma. “She just felt that there wasn’t space for her ideas, which is why she kept them to herself.” This example that Emma offers illustrates a traditional top-down approach to change: management implements changes without consulting the employees.
Emma: “Together, we came up with a solution. She suggested to her manager that she set up a forum where employees could share their ideas about how to improve things.” And that’s what happened. “It gave her the sense of being more in control – which she actually was because several of the ideas she collected were implemented by the management team.”
What does this example teach us? That involving employees in a process of change does more good than bad. “Not just in this example. I actually think this is always the case,” says Emma. “A forum is a great way.” Other methods include focus groups, committees for developing ideas, a suggestion box, surveys and polls, or a referendum.
“As stated earlier, fear of failure is a major stumbling block for employees,” says Emma. “You can take this fear away. For example, by redefining failure.”
Ideally, failure within an organization will be seen as an inevitable feature of innovation and growth. That’s why people with a growth mindset are less afraid to fail.
How can you redefine failure? “It can be really literal,” says Emma. “For example, you can communicate throughout your organization that ‘fail’ is short for ‘first attempt at learning’.” But it could also be less literal. “The more mistakes are openly discussed; the less afraid employees feel to fail. I think that F*ck up Fridays are a fun way to do this.” During weekly sessions, employees are encouraged to share a story about a time they f*cked something up. And what they learned from that.
Create space to make mistakes during the process of change – and beyond for that matter – and discuss together how you can do things better next time.
Using this advice, you’ll be able to help your wonderfully evolved human employees smoothly navigate organizational changes. Read this in David Attenborough’s voice: “When they help each other, humans are collectively capable of unparalleled achievements.”
Want to know more about how other organizations tackle change? We asked the People teams at Mollie, Picnic and Recruitee.