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The human side of change

| 05 August 2009

Everybody reacts differently, learns differently, even hears information differently, and responding with sensitivity to employees' individual reactions is one of the most challenging aspects of being a manager.

"We all bring our emotions, values, and past experiences with us to our jobs, and those things influence our reactions to workplace situations," says CARE Services Director Craig Mielcarski. "This dynamic often increases in intensity as we navigate significant transitions in our work world.

"Managers and coworkers can expect a range of responses from employees during transitions:

Common emotions

"People don't fear change, they fear loss," says Mielcarski, quoting an old maxim. That might be the loss of a job, a supervisor, colleagues, career opportunities, or work schedules. He adds that the initial fearful response often leads to other emotions, notably anxiety, the most common emotion during transitions. Many employees respond to workplace uncertainty with anger — "a common reaction to the reminder that we are not fully in control of our circumstances," says Mielcarski. Disbelief and sadness are also normal during times of change, and, along with anger, are all ordinary parts of the grief process. "Significant transitions always involve leaving something behind," observes Mielcarski.


People use different coping strategies to handle uncertainty and transitions, says Mielcarski — managers should expect to see a range of behavior as staff cope with change. Some employees may become more vocal, protesting the situation, venting frustration, or demanding information. Others may isolate themselves, focusing on immediate tasks to block out the bigger picture.

Mielcarski notes that while there are typical stages to adjusting to change — denial, resistance, exploration, and acceptance — people rarely move through them in a linear fashion. A manager might notice an employee displaying a range of emotions within the same day or a period of weeks, he says. Employees also will vary in their reactions. Some staff may express little emotion in the early stages and show more intensity over time, while others may do just the opposite, he says.

So what's a manager to do? Mielcarski offers these tips:

Keep a positive attitude: Managers can set the tone for how their staff will respond to the challenges and stress associated with unwanted change. A manager's availability, behavior, and attitude are key in helping his or her employees navigate the transition.

Communicate: When employees are feeling anxious about change, it's normal that they might not hear and register all the information coming from their manager, says Mielcarski. "You cannot communicate enough, in too many ways, or from too many reliable sources about what is happening during times of difficult change," he says. "Employees who have useful information will feel less out of control and more empowered."

Acknowledge stress, acknowledge people: Does acknowledging that times are stressful make them more so? Mielcarski takes issue with that common misperception. In fact, he says, the opposite is true: "The more we let employees know that we understand that they're affected by the changes, the more they will feel understood and cared for and be able to function well. Remember to say thank you and acknowledge employees for their efforts. Recognition and encouragement go a long way during challenging times."

Be patient and flexible: During times of unwelcome change when emotions tend to run high, people should be especially kind to and patient with one another. Mielcarski recommends that managers allow staff to spend more time connecting with each other about the current situation. And whenever work demands permit, give everyone more flexibility to take care of themselves.

Support for your employees, and yourself: Managers should ensure that they get the support they need during difficult times, says Mielcarski. The licensed therapists at CARE Services have expertise in organizational dynamics and can consult with managers about how to help a particular employee or an entire work group. Managers may also refer individual employees to CARE Services for free and confidential help.

CARE Services schedules courses during the semester and offers classes by request on how to handle stress or change. Call 643-7754 to explore this option.

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