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Performance Management

Changing How People Feel About Change

Resilience training techniques can improve engagement and help people overcome their fears about change.

Change is everywhere and learning executives are right in the middle of it.

The C-suite is calling for faster and more dramatic change to keep the organization competitive. But employees are experiencing change fatigue or worse, change revolt.

A 2017 report from the American Psychological Association says that “Americans who reported recent or current change were almost three times more likely to say they don’t trust their employer and more than three times as likely to say they intend to seek employment outside the organization within the next year.”

CEOs recognize a simple fact: Organizations need to change to grow and even just survive. Global consulting firm KPMG regularly surveys the CEOs of major companies around the world. Their 2017 report highlights disruption as a major focus and concern. According to the report, 74 percent of the nearly 1,300 respondents said “their company is striving to be the disruptor in its sector.” Half expect a major disruption in their segment within three years.

That leaves us with a problem. Change is needed for survival. But people hate change. They question and resist it. Learning executives are stuck in the middle. They’re charged with supporting a corporate strategy that employees loathe.

That’s probably why many learning professionals feel both embattled and ill-prepared for this change mandate. As a 2017 report by the Hackett Group titled “The CHRO Agenda” reported, “most HR organizations remain behind the curve in addressing issues central to achieving … enterprise goals including implementing organizational change.”

Change the Way People Feel About Change

It’s not actually change that people hate. It’s the way they respond to and feel about change. In fact, that negative change response is completely natural. People have been conditioned to fear change over thousands of years of evolution. For early humans, that fear response was a matter of survival in a dangerous world. While the threats of today’s workplace are different, people still have an automatic and negative response to anything that is out of the normal.

Fortunately, because the fear of change is biological and based on evolution it can be addressed with education. Teaching employees about their response to change and providing practical strategies to overcome it works. We can actually rewire their brains to accept and embrace change.

Organizations increasingly recognize that achieving the promised benefits of change requires developing the resilience skills of their employees. Resilience is a way of combating the stressors at work and in life. It’s a capacity that can be developed and can help employees deal with adversity and change in a way that not only allows them to bounce back but also to bounce forward. Resilience in the face of change can help them grow and improve from the challenges and stresses they face.

Help People Recognize and Overcome Negative Biases

Modern brain science helps explain why people naturally respond negatively to change. The human brain has both logical and emotional systems. In the face of change, the emotional part takes over and sends alerts that cause stress. Adrenaline and other stress hormones are released and negative emotions dominate thinking.

This anxiety causes people to imagine the worst. They see threats where none exist and interpret events in negative and self-limiting ways. They are unable to optimize individual and organizational performance. In psychology terms, this is known as the negativity bias.

While the emotional brain is powerful and can respond quickly to undermine thinking, the logical brain is actually more powerful when people have developed resilience skills. It’s what helps them be rational and solve problems. They can use it exert control over the emotional brain; to identify the triggers of stress and rein in the natural, emotional response. Resilience skills can help people beat negativity bias.

The Elements of Resilience

Resilience is comprised of several characteristics built on three core elements: how we take in and filter information; how we act in response to challenges; and how we interact with others. Learning executives can improve organizational performance by developing the resilience skills of their employees and leaders.

Some of these skills include:

Personal Responsibility: The belief that successes or failures at work are determined by one’s talents and motivations rather than external forces such as luck or good timing. People who show personal responsibility are likely to engage in proactive behaviors and persist in the face of adversity.

Realistic Optimism: The ability to see the world in a positive yet grounded way. Realistic optimists recognize that things don’t always go as planned but maintain focus and work toward the desired outcome.

Self Composure: The ability to manage stress and remain calm under pressure. Simply recognizing stress triggers is a good start in maintaining productivity. Composure helps people move forward productively when faced with change.

Problem Solving: The ability to solve problems is crucial in helping people identify solutions to situations others might find overwhelming or overly complex.

Goal Orientation: The tendency to set appropriate goals, monitor progress and adjust accordingly.

Courageous Communication: The ability to deal with others in a candid and appropriate way even in challenging circumstances. People who can effectively initiate and manage difficult conversations elevate their influence and are more productive.

Techniques for Increased Resilience

There are specific techniques that can be learned and used to improve resilience.

Use Active Thinking: The emotional brain has a tendency to take over in times of stress or change. That takeover can cause resistance or sabotage results. People often make false assumptions, focus on the worst aspects or ignore the positives. A more appropriate response is to slow down and actively challenge those automatic thoughts with active thinking. In the face of a challenge, pause to think about things in a rational way.

What are the facts? How have things worked out previously? What can be learned from previous situations? By exercising active thinking, people flex their logical brain to counteract the emotional brain and are able to move forward in a positive way.

Practice Mindfulness: Life is hectic and distractions are commonplace, especially at work. As a result, people spend an inordinate amount of time reliving the past and worrying about the future. Most of these thoughts are negative and unhelpful.

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing attention and awareness on the present moment, without judging actions as either good or bad. Mindfulness can be developed in a number of ways including through breathing techniques, adjusting schedules for better focus, meditation, exercise or periodically disconnecting from technology.

Set Appropriate Goals: Another way to build resilience is through setting appropriate goals. Goal setting focuses attention and helps people persist through challenges. Research shows that ambitious but specific goals are powerful drivers of behavior. This again has to do with how the brain works. When people set a goal, the brain starts to feel like they’ve already achieved it. It becomes a part of their being and helps them work toward accomplishment.

But keep in mind that goals should reflect specific actions or process steps, not just an outcome. For example, a manager shouldn’t just set a goal of improving her relationship with her team. Rather, she should set goals such as meeting weekly with each team member or providing regular feedback on a project. These process goals work to support the desired outcome goal.

Change is inevitable. Resilience can change the way people and organizations deal with it. With learning executives caught in the middle, they can benefit personally from resilience skills and help their people become more resilient. The result is an organization that can change for the better.

Casey Mulqueen is senior director of learning and development for TRACOM Group and author of “The Social Style & Versatility Facilitator Handbook.” He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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