Change Management Lessons from RUOK Week

The effects of Depression

I was reminded strongly during RUOK week last year of the impact of fear on what people feel, think and then do. The advent of RUOK week reminded me of the devastating impact of the deep melancholy and sense of loss that accompanies depression. When the shame or guilt from the past conflates with the ambiguity of the future, fear takes over and there seems no place to turn, no escape. The sense of futility and at times, worthlessness, takes over. Often people feel trapped in a corner of their own making with no way out. The fear of the past brought to the present, butting against a fear of the future envelops people in what, to outsiders, appears to be an unreal world. To the person suffering from the ‘black dog’, however, the dark world is only too real.

The fact that bouts of depressive thoughts, although at times lasting for weeks, occur sporadically, makes it difficult for people not in the know, to understand to any degree what the individual is going through. It is the same with change. It is difficult to know how other people are feeling about change unless they are assertive in their communication with their colleagues and leaders. What we do know is that during change, it is the sense of loss, what people perceive they have to give up combined with the fear of the new, that makes change difficult enough to warrant special attention in order for it to be successful.

There are change management lessons from the way people can be helped, or help themselves, in managing that fear.

The link to change

I reflected on this after running a simulation for a large national organisation that was undergoing change. The change required their call centre people to change their behaviours rather dramatically. It became evident during the simulation that the managers and team leaders present also held fears about what they may have to give up and what the future might bring.

Call centres, good ones that is, are traditionally run following specified processes to achieve key performance indicators set in an annual planning process. A call centre operator is required to answer a call, gather set information and follow written procedures. In many cases they will have, amongst their key performance indicators, cost based indicators such as Average Call Handling Time. The better call centres will have customer based KPIs too, with most relying on the ubiquitous lag indicator of “customer service” rather than a current indicator such as First Time Resolution, the percentage of calls resolving the customers need with one call.

This organisation is no different. However, it seeks to be very different. The change afoot is to move from this standard approach to one where people are encouraged to, within boundaries, put the customer first and work out what approaches will work to improve the customer experience, balancing the competing outcomes of costs and customer loyalty. Managers and team leaders are being encouraged to try new ways of working that are not wedded to current processes and KPIs, being unafraid to fail in doing so. In fact being encouraged to fail and fail fast.

During the simulation the managers and team leaders were allowed to experience the difficulties in making balanced decisions with the boundaries of strategy and policy in a safe environment. What was apparent from the comments and discussions is that a high proportion of people felt fear that in taking the learning from this simulation back to the workplace, they would expose themselves to sanctions if they failed. They were afraid of the impact on their performance evaluation and their bonus if they indeed did fail. They were, as do people in a depressive state, bringing the past to the present and not dealing with what was in front of them.

Dealing with depression, dealing with change

There are ways in which people in a depressed state can be provided, or provide themselves, an environment in which they can reduce their fear of failure and reduce the degree to which they conflate baggage from the past and ambiguity in regard to the future in a maelstrom of emotions. These same ways can be used at the other end of the continuum with people undergoing change for which they feel fear. The ways include, but, of course, are not limited to:

  • Dealing in facts
  • The availability of choice and;
  • The perception of control

Dealing in facts

It is important for people who feel fear about what they have to give up or, what they anticipate new, to deal in facts. To be encouraged to deal with what they know to be true in the here and now.

During change, leaders often do not know the details of what will happen to the level of detail about which individual people will be seeking surety. For example, will I have a job, will I work in the same team, will I have the same control over the way I work or will I be expected to learn new skills I don’t think I can learn.

What leaders do know though is the decisions, which will be made and in what time frame, that provide the answers people are seeking. Communicating the facts, including the processes of change regularly and through different mediums, increases the likelihood that a critical mass of people will deal with what is real rather than with their fears.

What this means in practice is the use of tools and activities including:

  • Face-to-face question and answer sessions
  • Frequently asked questions available for download or viewing on the intranet
  • On-line or physical forums where new questions can be asked and dealt with
  • Tool box meetings to discuss further detail and to enable people to feel secure to speak up in an environment of their closest colleagues
  • Use of digital networks and technology such as webinars to reach remote employees
  • Use of video featuring key stakeholders in presentations down the line rather than reading from prepared notes to ensure that the messages sent are seen as authentic. Body language and tone and pace of voice are more important than words when people determine whether the message is authentic and, therefore, what is actually factual
  • Being clear as much as possible about what is going to stop, what is finished, what is no more, even if at the time, it is unclear about the detail of what is new
  • Showing not telling, what is different about this change process, if there is baggage held concerning past change processes.

When people feel fear of the past conflated with the ambiguity of the future, they can and often do feel powerless. Dependent on their past, they may react along a continuum from withdrawing to being aggressive. Dealing in facts can take away some of that fear and help them react in a more measured and engaging way.

The availability of choice

People living with fear of change at times paint themselves into a corner of their own making, finding it difficult to understand that they have real choices, being afraid of the potential consequences of the choices they can imagine.

In managing change, providing people with choices, which are clear with, as much as possible, unequivocal consequences they can evaluate, alleviates the source of hopelessness that sometimes descends upon them.

This might mean engaging people in brainstorming issues and alternatives, as leaders are often not privy to what deeply concerns people affected by change and may miss alternatives which are easy to provide and mean a great deal more to individuals than the leader could possibly have understood.

Whilst it is very important for leaders to be clear about what has ended, there can be choice about how it ends. Whilst it is important that we communicate and receive and act on feedback there can be choice about by what means and how frequently people can access the communication and provide feedback.

Making choice part of the language leaders use, when they communicate, makes people who are fearing change feel like they have options they may otherwise believe they did not. It needs to be said, however, that the choice must be offered with the lowest level of risk that can be mustered in order for people not to be paralysed by the fear of taking the “wrong” option.

Perception of control

Giving people choice is part of an overall need for most people to feel safe during significant change. That need is for control.

In people feeling the sense of loss which accompanies depression, a key factor is the sense of losing control over their emotions, their body’s physical reactions and their future. In managing change, it is important that people have the perception that they have control. Perceptions of control, are often linked to perceptions of power. Together control and power form strong motivators to action for or against the change. Whilst choice is a big part of providing that perception it is not the only component.

Research shows that it is more important for people to feel they have subjective control rather than objective control. That is, they must feel they have control. Actually having control by way of authorisation is not enough. They must intrinsically believe they have control.

This has implications for the leader in the way they behave. They must be consistent in what they say and do. It has implications for the individual too. They must be given the chance to resolve issues which provide doubt about their ability to control outcomes related to their changed circumstances. Whether it be new processes, new work activities, different colleagues or such, the greater degree of control they perceive they have, the less fear they will feel.

The perception of control relates directly to the organisation with whom I was running the simulation. The participants need to know what it feels like to experiment, to fail and learn in a safe environment. The simulation provided that in part, but it is not enough. Unless they have the experience back at work where they attempt to do something new and to fail is one where they perceive they have control over the inputs and the consequences of the outcomes, they are unlikely to venture far in the new way of working. Some will because it is their nature, but it is unlikely that a critical mass will try.

In a week where we were encouraged to ask, are you OK, of our workmates and friends who may be suffering the impact of depressive thoughts and emotions it has been instructive for me to think that we are all on a continuum and that the lessons learned from dealing with depression have resonance in dealing with people undergoing serious change in the workplace.


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