Dealing with change, the past and emotions

In unpredictable and highly contested environments, organisational success requires the ability to implement change more quickly and effectively than your competitors. In order to make change quickly and effectively people need to be able to let go of the past and grab onto the future. Most change advice, methods and models, however, focus on ways to help people envision and buy-into the future. They rarely, if ever, deal with the past, emotions and the ‘grieving’ process some people must go through before they can let go and move on.

Change is an emotional process. People fear the unknown, being wrong, unaccepted, ridiculed, embarrassed and, therefore, frequently resist change out of fear. Many people have also become understandably cynical about change. We have seen management tools and techniques come and go (e.g., Quality Circles, TQM, BPR, down-sizing, out-sourcing, CRM) and have come to think, “This too shall pass.”

I suggest that if we do not deal with this emotional legacy, we will continue to see slow and/or unsuccessful change. A few years ago I conducted a ‘quick-and-dirty’ on-line survey of change practices. When I asked change managers which one factor would help them most in their change efforts if they could do it faster, 15 of the 24 respondents (over 60%) answered overcoming resistance and building commitment. I also asked people to estimate the amount of time that was spent on dealing with the ’emotional side’ of change (e.g., people’s fears or anger over past failed change efforts). On average, in successful projects people reported allocating about 13 days for dealing with the ‘emotional side’ of change compared with only 2.5 days in the unsuccessful change projects.

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