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The Psychology of Change Management

November 22, 2022

This is the second blog in our six-part series on Change Management for your business. In today’s blog, we’ll discuss the psychology of Change Management – why some people fear change, why some resist it, and how you can help your team overcome these challenges and embrace change. 

Why do people fear and resist change?

There are several reasons why your team fears and/or resists a needed change, even one they’ve played a part in identifying. There could be several root causes for this behavior, and understanding these reasons and how to talk your team through them is vital for successfully navigating a change initiative. 

Metathesiophobia (Fear of Change)

There’s a term for fear of change called “metathesiophobia.” It’s not a specific diagnosis yet, but much is written about it. (For example, you can click here to learn more.)

In short, people (despite how much we might complain about it) thrive on routine and structure. This is why most experts agree that having structure for your children is essential – they know what to expect from others and what is expected of them.

In short, we’re hard-wired for this sort of consistency. We thrive on it. And when that consistency is threatened, when we lose control of it, that’s scary. This is the main root of other issues around change initiatives, and it can also lead to other fears. 

How to help employees with metathesiophobia

Most of the issue seems to center around the loss of routine and structure. Ensuring that their routines have as little disruption as possible will help them work through this fear. Also, there’s some evidence that walking might help; allow them breaks when they feel overwhelmed for a five-to-ten minute walk.

Whenever possible, provide them with the opportunities to continue doing the work they were doing before. If the change directly impacts their work (like having to learn a way of doing things), provide them with ample ramp-up time. Take what you think it should require, and double that.

If their change involves reporting to a new manager or supervisor, prioritize time for the new person to get to know your existing employee who is struggling with the change. Pay for the two of them to get lunch together. Block off time on both calendars for them to work out communication preferences, work flow, and expectations.

Putting your “money where your mouth is” will show both your new supervisor and your current employee that you’re committed to making this work for everyone, which should help 

Losing Control

Again, those routines and structures are vital to our sense of purpose and well-being. If we lose the sense of control, we feel helpless. Instead of controlling what is happening around us, we feel things are happening to us

Clinical psychologist, speaker, and published author Dr. Carla Marie Manley, Ph.D., phrases it this way:

When we choose to create a change, such as moving to a new home or shifting jobs, we feel more in control of the outcome. If the change is brought about by forces outside of our control, whether a boss, a pandemic or an accident, we feel disempowered.

Losing that sense of control (whether we had any control or it was imagined) is a powerful driving force for people to resist change. 

Helping an employee who is struggling with the loss of control

Loss of control is tough on all of us. We all like to feel empowered and like we’ve got some sense of being in charge of our own lives.

Empathy can go a long way here. While this is true for ALL of these struggles, a little empathy here is probably the most impactful. And this is because often, people don’t realize that what they’re really feeling is that loss of control.

Set goals for this team member that are easily within their capability, and celebrate their wins when they achieve them. Building back up their sense of confidence and self-efficacy will help pull them out of the funk the change has caused them. 

Grief or Loss

This reason for change resistance can’t be overstated. The business consultants at Emergent Performance Solutions, who offer Change Management consulting as a core service, stated it this way:

Many leaders won’t know how to empathize with employees struggle to embrace change because they have never considered or respected the fact that the employee did, in fact, lose something; an office space that they’d grown attached to (even though the shiny new construction will be so much better!), their mastery and skill over the old system (even though the new system actually saves them time and energy!), pride in the filing process they previously created ( even though a new system will double their efficiency!).

I’ve felt this in my personal life. The time was right for me to leave my door-to-door lawn care sales job. I was increasingly unhappy with senior management’s direction, leading to a decreased quality of life. But I had relationships with coworkers that had gone back years and years. These people were my friends. (I still get together with some of them annually just to catch up on life!)

The same thing happened when the COVID pandemic hit. I switched from full-time in the office to 100% remote work overnight. Literally. The relationships I had built were suddenly missing from my life, including my “work wife,” with whom I had worked for over ten years at two companies. Poof. Those relationships immediately became strained and disappeared entirely in some unfortunate cases.

Your team might be open to change but need time to grieve the loss of “the old way of doing things.” 

Helping a team member who is grieving a change at work

Again, this one might be tough; they might not fully realize that “grief” is the emotion they’re feeling.

Provide space for them to talk about their feelings. Make sure they’re heard, they get a chance to really open up. Having this conversation privately, away from the job site or office, is preferable. This gives them a chance to feel like they can let their guard down without being self-conscious about their coworkers seeing or hearing them in a vulnerable situation. 

Once you’ve helped them identify the feelings they’re going through, give them as much time as they need to work through those feelings. They may work through them during that meal, or it may take weeks. Grief is a unique process to everyone.

Throughout that process, make sure you share regular encouragement with them. Not “Hey, snap out of it, we need you on your ‘A’ game!” A more appropriate support is a text saying “I know you’re still working through this, and I support you,” or pulling them aside in the morning before the workday starts to say “I really appreciate what you’re doing, and how honest you’ve been. Let me know if I can help” will go a long, long way. 

Fear of Failure or Success

It sounds like they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, right? Fear of failure makes sense to us – no one wants others to think less of them. We instinctively understand that people don’t want to appear vulnerable, incompetent, or stupid.

But fear of success is essentially the same thing. People fear that if they succeed at the “change,” they’ll get more responsibility. And they’re afraid that they’ll get to a level of responsibility that they aren’t able to handle.

So, if success in this venture means they will eventually fail (because they reach a level of responsibility they can’t handle), it’s easier to resist that change altogether. 

Helping an employee dealing with a fear of failure OR fear of success

The root issue is the same – fear of being viewed as incompetent. There are a couple of things you can do to help mitigate this.

First, as the owner or manager, assure them (and reassure them time and time again) that the success of this venture is your responsibility. If a failure should happen, it’ll fall at your feet. Once they know that a potential failure (now OR in the future) is your responsibility, some of the pressure is off of them.

Secondly, make sure that you’ve set achievable, frequent, short-term goals. Ensure that your employees have the skill set to complete these, and work side-by-side with them if necessary to boost their confidence that you’re not going to allow them to flounder.

Note: Be sure they get public praise if the change initiative goes well. Play up their role and make sure they get public credit for the wins. This wil build loyalty to you and the company, and build confidence in this team member who has been lacking it. 

More Work

Whether it will be more work for them depends on how well you manage this change.

However, if you’ve previously poorly managed change in your company, or they came to you from a company that poorly managed transition, you should expect this pushback. 

Expert opinion is that you shouldn’t increase an individual’s workload by more than 10% if you expect them to cooperate with a change initiative. If they think it’s going to be more than that (or it actually requires more than that), expect this to fail. 

Helping an employee for whom the change has meant a lot more work

If you’re loading up an employee with more than 10% additional work, above and beyond their current workload, you should expect them to push back against the change.

This one is really easy – create time in their workflow for them to work on the change. Ask what tasks they like doing, and which ones they hate. Take the ones they hate and delegate them to another employee or even outsource them.

It’s potentially a bit painful on the wallet, but it’ll pay off long-term in employee loyalty and buy-in for the change you’re trying to make. 

Competing Commitments

There’s a really interesting concept from Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey that was published in the Harvard Business Review. It’s called “competing commitments,” and it helps explain a lot of frustrations that business leaders face when trying to implement a change.

You might have someone that says they’re “all in” on the change you’re trying to implement. However, their words and actions often do not line up. For example, they may tell you that they’re committed to onboarding the new hires or implementing the new software, but they fail to make progress on these initiatives day after day. 

What Kegan and Lahey suggest is that the team member might have a “competing commitment” that they’re not completely aware of.

Let’s say that you begin to engage that team member who said they’ll properly onboard new hires, but continually neglects training. After some digging, you might learn that they’re really proud of the fact that they’re the very best at their job in the company. 


Or the person who said they need that new software, but won’t prioritize learning the new system. They keep telling you they’re working on getting the new system up and running, but you’re not seeing any progress.

All of this is to say that the person who is dragging their feet (and causing you to pull out your hair in frustration) might just need an afternoon with you to talk through what’s going on. It’s probably not that they’re being deliberately obstructive. It’s more likely that they have another priority that’s really deep seated and don’t quite realize it. 

Helping an individual employee overcome competing commitments

This is going to sound like I’m punting on giving you good advice here, but my first recommendation is to read the article I linked to above (from the Harvard Business Review). They have a really solid framework for helping people walk through this issue. 

Essentially, you have talk with them until you get to the “why” behind their behavior. In these competing commitments, most people have an underlying assumption, a worldview that they might not be 100% aware of, and that’s what’s submarining their behavior. 

In the example above with the training issue, after some digging you might discover that employee has a fear at the core of their behavior. If they train someone else to do it, that person might do it better, and they’ll lose prestige. The underlying assumption is “I’ll lose the respect of my coworkers.”

In the example with the person dragging their feet with the software. An in-depth conversation might reveal that they feel “needed” in the current process, and they worry about being “replaced” once their day-to-day tasks aren’t as complicated or needed. 

Conclusion

You likely have a lot of really good people working for you. And as you begin to try and change anything (bring in an outsider for a management or C-suite position, change your software, or streamline a process), some of them will push back. 

Have patience with them and empathy for them. If they’re an employee worth having on your team, talking them through the underlying issues and offering the best support possible will bring them around on the change and build loyalty with your team.