I have a very vivid memory of being seven years old, walking into the classroom at school and being hit by an overwhelming feeling of horror. As I fought back tears, I desperately searched for the people who sat on my table, expecting them to be as outraged as I was and ready to support me to fight against this. But to my disappointment, no one else from my table seemed too upset. In fact, some even seemed excited.
So what was it that caused my highly emotional reaction? Answer: the teacher had changed the classroom around.
Now I know what you’re thinking, ridiculous right? Yes, it probably was. Yet, as an adult looking back on this event, I can actually understand why my seven-year-old-self reacted this way. Not only can I understand it, I can see parallels with what happens when change is handled badly in businesses, day in, day out.
OUT OF THE BLUE
Moving the classroom around came as an enormous shock. I was expecting to turn up to class that day, sit in the seat I’d sat in for the previous six months, enjoy the same views of the blackboard at the front of the class and of the playing field out of the window, talk to the same people sitting on my table who I had built a great connection with, pack my pencil case and books away in my pristine red tray, before retrieving my coat from my usual hook and heading home at the end of the day. So as I entered the classroom that morning and found that everything I was expecting had been turned upside down, I reacted emotionally. All I could focus on was how I was going to be sitting with people I didn’t even know very well, let alone have fun with. The blackboard was going to be at a funny angle from my new seating position, and the window was behind me so my view of the playing field was no more; even the hooks for our coats had moved, and my gleaming red tray was now a battered yellow one that someone had clearly manhandled and drawn on. I barely did any work that day; I was unable to focus on what the teacher was saying because I was too distracted by the unfamiliarity of how my new ‘table mates’ went about their work, how deep the groove was down the side of my manky yellow tray and how, out of habit, I was clearly going to make a fool of myself by heading to the wrong place to collect my coat later on. I’m not even sure I did much work for the entire week; in fact, my performance at school must have dropped dramatically until I calmed down and realised that all was not so bad. I realised that I really liked my new table mates, one even confided in me that she, too, had really struggled to accept the move and we bonded over complaining about it to each other. I could actually see the blackboard better without the sun from the window shining into my eyes in the afternoons, and by adding two circles above the groove in my yellow tray, mine became the only one with a smiley face on the side.
So if the change brought about some good, why was my initial reaction one of horror? Well, firstly, prior to the classroom move, there was zero communication about the imminent changes. This meant that it came out of nowhere, and so I went through all of the stages of the SARRRRAH process; shock, anger, rejection, rationalisation, reflection and realisation, before finally accepting it and seeking help by talking to my mum about how hard I’d found it. Where my teacher could have helped me was not only communicating that the change was happening (this would have been nice but I suspect I still would have probably gone through the SARRRRAH process), but explaining why it was happening. How was I ever meant to embrace being moved away from my friends and enduring the inconvenience of working in a different location with different resources unless I understood why? Without this key piece of information, to me the change was just change for change’s sake, and something the teacher wanted to do for their own gain or to punish us in some way. It was this lack of purpose to the move that meant my table mate and I continued to complain about if for a long time after it happened, as I’m sure others did too. Additionally, the second issue was that the change was done to me. By that I mean I had no involvement, say or input into how it could work or what the alternative ways of handling it could be. It was completely out of my control and I didn’t like that one bit.
Despite it being fairly obvious why this approach would not go down too well, how many changes in businesses feel like this? Like the leaders at the top have made a decision about what will happen and everyone else is expected to go along with it, without sufficient communication of what the change looks like or, more importantly, why it’s happening? In my experience, this happens a lot, and you can guarantee that for every desk of employees that seem okay with it, there will be someone feeling exactly how I felt at seven years old. In fact, we are such creatures of habit, that up to 98% of our thoughts are the same every day; not all that conducive to embracing change and new ways of working! Can businesses really afford to have productivity drop, and negativity and resistance ensue until each employee goes through the SARRRRAH process? For some, this process can take weeks, months, or even years.
So what can businesses do to help employees embrace change and maintain optimum productivity throughout the process?
1) START WITH THE WHY!
Rather than explaining what the change looks like and when it will be happening, always start by explaining the reason the change is required in the first place. If my teacher had explained why it’s so important to mix with a diverse group of people and said “we’ve invested in some new equipment for the classroom, but to fit it in we’re going to have to move things around a bit. I’ve also noticed that at break times you are only mixing with the people on your tables so we are going to change the seating plan too”, at least I would have understood where this was all coming from and wouldn’t have felt so confused or like it was punishment of some kind. It also would have meant that it didn’t come as a total shock, so my brain’s emotional (or limbic) system could have been overruled by the neo cortex, or rational thinking brain, meaning I could focus on the positives and practicalities of the situation.
2) INVOLVE PEOPLE
Even better than communicating only the why, if my teacher had continued with “so what do you all think we could move to make some space, and how could we rework the seating plan?”, I actually think I’d have been completely on board. Now I know that asking seven year olds to create a seating plan is extremely challenging, and it would certainly have slowed the process down, but it would have meant the change was embraced by those it affected, and output wouldn’t have suffered. In businesses, by the time the decision to make a change has been made, those at the top want it to happen as quickly as possible. By putting the brakes on, however painful this feels, and taking time to bring people into the ideas forum, not only will you get better results from the change, but you will also build trust and engagement from your employees.
3) ASK SOME SIMPLE QUESTIONS
After my classroom experience, I grew up believing I wasn’t good with change. This isn’t true; I love change and the mundane bores me. But what I’m not good with is feeling out of control in situations where the change impacts me personally. Between not understanding the why and not having any input, I was pretty out of control in the above situation.
However, there are still going to be occasions where I don’t fully get the purpose of a change or maybe don’t agree with the why, and there will be times where I’m not part of the ‘how will we do this?’ group, or my ideas aren’t considered. So in these situations I have two choices: 1) stand there feeling horrified fighting back tears like I did as a child, or 2) help myself through the situation. As tempting as option 1) feels at times, thankfully option 2) usually wins out, and in doing so I ask myself these four questions:
- What did I used to be able to do before the change that I still can?
- What couldn’t I do before before the change and still can’t now?
- What did I used to be able to do before the change but can’t now?
- What couldn’t I do before the change but can now?
By working through these four simple questions, nine times out of ten I realise that the change isn’t going to negatively impact the important things half as much as I thought it would, in fact a lot of things will stay the same or improve, and the things that I can’t do anymore weren’t that important anyway.
So when faced with occasions where employees react negatively to change, help them to work through these four questions and the change will suddenly seem far less scary. And before you write yourself or anyone else off as not being good with change, make sure you have established the why.