Change management in difficult times: emotions matter

What challenges does your business face in this difficult economy? What is your strategy? How will you get there? Do your employees know what is going on?

Management teams debate intensely behind closed doors. They reflect on the challenges, argue over responses, try to minimise the damages and finally decide on changes.  When everything is resolved, they spring the answers on unsuspecting employees who were not even aware of the question.

Discussion with employees is tricky, of course, because if the perception is created that the business is floundering or leadership uncertain, rumours will abound and panic ensue. However, a policy of honest and open discussion encourages the sharing of ideas rather than the spreading of rumours. The more we discuss with our employees the problems of the market before we think about solutions, the better we will face the challenges together.

Downsizing, rightsizing and restructuring have created uncertainty and mistrust ever since they became part of the landscape. In the past, employees could expect the organisation to take care of them. Employees simply had to listen and obey, and the future, if not bright, would be secure. But now, insecurity and uncertainty is the norm. Even high achievers are not immune; if a project fails, everybody loses their jobs, the best and the worst.

Employees today have to ask questions; check that the project is on track; check that managers are making sensible decisions and customers are satisfied. And survivors of restructuring will be especially sceptical, with hypersensitive “crap detectors” assessing everything management says or does.

One of the reasons for so little trust between management and employees during downturns and difficulties is that employees are left so far behind. Management holds numerous crisis meetings and project planning sessions, and in the process they build a tightknit team. They forget that employees have not had the advantage of processing the issues. By the time employees find out how bad things are, management has already been through all the traditional stages of grief and healing. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression have all had their turn, enabling acceptance and realignment to emerged.

Management is a new team, ready for new challenges and excited about the new age that is dawning for the organisation. There will be some pain, of course, and some jobs lost. There will be resistance to change; but the changes are necessary, and the sooner employees accept the inevitable the better for everyone.

But messy emotions cannot be tucked into neat and tidy packages, even in the workplace. Surely by now we understand that, for better or worse, emotions are a real and necessary part of the working environment. We cannot spare people the trauma of grief or the difficult process of coming to terms with change, especially when their sense of worth and wellbeing is threatened.

Managers who try to hurry their employees through difficult times with a “let go or be let go” attitude actually make it much more difficult for employees to adjust. In her book, Healing the Downsized Organization, Delorese Ambrose recalls one employee saying, “It’s hard when (managers) make inconsiderate decisions that make our work life unbearable, then turn around and ask us to be ‘empowered’ and to be ‘team players’. 

Ambrose goes on to say, “The mistake that individuals and organizations typically make is to dash headlong into the new beginning without allowing the process of transition to follow its natural path to healing.” The reason is understandable. “…managers don’t often have the time or the patience to build a work environment that heals losses and supports the emotional component of transition.”

Like over-anxious parents trying to stop a child from crying, managers want employees to start on the new journey without delay. Employee complaints are scorned as failure to understand and accept market realities. Resistance to change is seen as just that, resistance, rather than a necessary process through which managers have themselves progressed. We need to create space for employees to come to terms with change by bringing them into the loop much earlier in the process. That way we will all emerge more hopeful and better equipped to face the challenges ahead.

(This article was published in The Witness on Monday 26/08/2013)

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people and HR & people-management consulting.


  1. Leon Grove on 27 August 2013 at 10:42 am

    Many thanx for this useful article-well done on forwarding it

    doc groovy

    • Ian Webster on 27 August 2013 at 10:46 am

      Hi Leon. Thank you and thanks for visiting.

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