Why do some cope with change and others struggle?

We have all witnessed that in both our work and personal lives.
Change is a constant. Think of what we have gone through even in the last few years – a global pandemic, working from home, hybrid working. Right now, consider the change that is happening to many in the tech sector, with many star-performing corporates restructuring and downsizing.

Even a simple change can result in unexpected reactions. One of my most amusing recollections is the reaction to the introduction of a new office layout. The resistance of some to being moved to what they perceived as a less prestigious position in the office was quite something!

People react differently to change and if you are someone leading change, it might be important to remember a famous quote.

When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.

Dale Carnegie

For those experiencing significant change with potential adverse consequences, it can be very traumatic. It has even been described as resembling the impact associated with grief. Back in 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the ‘Change Curve’ to describe the stages of grief that individuals experience. Today the same model is used to show the four key stages that people go through when they experience any crisis or major change.

There are 4 key stages that most people go through as they adjust to change.

  1. People's first response to major change is often shock and denial. They can be heard saying “This is not going to happen", "They’ll take it back", "It will not affect us". It's vital to keep them fully informed about what's going on, yet even when we do this, they can still remain in denial.
  2. Second is the anger phase and people can be heard saying “This is a mistake!" "Wrong solution, wrong timing!" "Been there, done that!" "Not me!" At this stage, emotions are running high, and we’ve got to handle our people with sensitivity and care.
  3. In the exploration phase, people gradually start to accept their new situation, but they still need time to adjust. “Ok, maybe this can work; there might be a way”, “We’ll just have to make the most of it”. Support to help them adjust is very important.
  4. Finally, when your people are fully committed to the changes, they will accept their new way of working. Your role is to help them to celebrate their success! “It’s working better than I expected”, “I quite like the new way of doing things”. It is also important at this point to ensure the change is embedded.

Emotional Reactions

When we introduce change, it is so important that we tune into our emotions because we will all react to change in a variety of ways – some positive and some negative. Understanding people’s mindset is important if you want to lead them through. It is also important to remember that some may stay rooted in anger and denial and never move forward. This is difficult for them and those around them.

In his book ‘Victim, Survivor, or Navigator?’, Richard McKnight outlined three different choices that people could make in relation to workplace change. I am sure you will recognise the traits in some of your colleagues, or even yourself.

The Victim

The victim is someone who views change as something that has been done onto them. They want to know why this is happening to them, see everything as being outside their control and blame others for the situation. “How could they do this to me?” The victim sees things as either good or bad, black or white, and in their mind, “We are all doomed”.

The result to this behaviour is to remain stuck in the past. Observable behaviour may include constant complaining, cynical comments, avoidance of key issues, paralysis or even quitting.

If you find that you have slipped in a victim mindset – stop! The outcome of this thinking will likely be a self-fulfilling prophesy of failure. Your need to change your thinking and quickly. Perhaps it’s time to seek support from someone to help mentor or coach you through this phase.

The Survivor

Survivors just want to get change over with. However, they tend to focus on what they personally need out of the change. Their typical behaviour is to prioritise their own needs. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t look for an opportunity through a major change? However, taken to an extreme it does not serve the greater good. Survivors may get involved in political positioning. They will say the right thing and may become focused on defending territory and resources. Decision-making may become more short-term for them. Energy may be focused on the wrong thing. While they appear in favour of change, the mindset becomes one of self-preservation. They avoid risk and may be reluctant to new ideas if it adversely impacts them. If you find yourself going through change and adopting a survivor mindset, ask yourself if you are really contributing to the delivery of the best outcome for you or those around you.

The Navigator

Navigators on the other hand, are people who embrace change and take advantage of the opportunities that come their way. They hold the belief that they can make a difference and their typical behaviour is to support others. They spot opportunities and give clarity of purpose. Navigators balance short and long-term decision-making and are courageous – seeking out the next big thing and then driving it forward. They are also engaged; their mindset sees the opportunities that change brings and they view crises as part of change and something to be worked through. As a result, both they and their teams emerge stronger. If you are a navigator mindset, then congratulate yourself. You are showing true leadership in the midst of change.

Making a conscious decision

Change can make us feel blown off course and out of control. This feeling, along with the lack of certainty, can be one of the most stressful things about it and can be the biggest factor pushing us into victim mode.

Change and mindset

Think about the last major change that you went through. Were you a navigator, a survivor or a victim?

Consciously understand where you are and think about how you move to navigate your way forward. It may not be perfect, but you will be well on the way to making the best success you can of it.