This post was originally published on August 25, 2011.
A colleague once told me, following a decision that he had made with which I was unhappy, “it’s business, not personal.” “I know.” I replied. That was years ago, yet that brief conversation has remained with me through the years.
On the surface it seems innocuous enough, but, upon reflection, even though the decision might have been made without any thought given to how it might directly effect me or any of the other people impacted by the decision, the way I received it was most definitely personal; personal in the sense that the decision ran contrary to my personal value system, personal in that it ran against my view of the world and how I perceived right versus wrong, personal in that it did not meet the expectations that I had for the person who made the decision, nor for the company in which I worked.
Based on these things, my reaction to the decision and the associated change were not only personal, but how I received them had a direct influence on my perceptions and behaviors moving forward. Had my reaction to the decision mentioned above been one of satisfaction, my associated perceptions would have been noticeably different. I might not have looked for another job. I might not have started my own business. I might not have pursued a higher-level degree. My whole path in life could have been dramatically altered, had I accepted, rather than resisted, this one, relatively small decision!
Since change is a personal experience, paying attention to our reactions and those of others during change can help us to better understand our behaviors as well as the behaviors of others. We might even notice patterns of behavior based on similar reactions that we, or others close to us, have when certain types of changes occur. For example, when someone takes the liberty of making a decision for me, without consulting with me first, I tend to initially resist, and adapt in time if I decide the decision was a good one. A colleague of mine, on the other hand, tends to accept such decisions until there’s a reason not to.
When one person resists a change while another is satisfied with it, there is a potential for conflict, because one is happy with the change, while another is not. The same goes for someone who becomes overwhelmed during change, while another, satisfied with it, has difficulty understanding why the overwhelmed person is having such problems. The person in resistance can certainly point those reasons out to the person who is satisfied (using the person in distress as an example), but if the person who is satisfied is unwilling or unable to listen (they might be so happy that any negativity is deflected like Wonder Woman’s magic bracelets), conflict will likely result. The person who takes a wait-and-see approach to the change, or, for whatever reason, is unable to get on board and distances themselves from any attempts by others to get involved, can inadvertently spark conflict by their disinterest. By refusing to choose a side – satisfied or resistant – the compliant person can evoke resentment in others, often without knowing about it and, in some cases, without caring.
With so many possible reactions, many of which are based upon perceptions, values, experiences and expectations that are often unknown to others, and such a land mine of potential conflicts, what can we do to prevent such conflicts from arising, or identifying and resolving those that have already occurred?
I like to use an approach originally promoted for pedestrian safety: Stop, Look and Listen.
In our hustle and bustle world of constant connectivity to both work and in our personal lives, it’s easy to react quickly and ask questions later. In order to see current or potential conflict, however, we must first step out of the constant go, go, go of our hectic lives to see what is going on right now, in this moment, as clearly (aka with as few distractions) as possible.
Whether you are planning a change, or are the recipient of one, take a step back and observe the environment. What are, or might be, the reactions to this particular change? If planning change, look at how things currently operate, and then imagine how this change might impact various elements of the system or group. Where are the high-risk areas for conflict – those where some might be satisfied, others resistant, or where people might resist each other? Where is the potential for compliance (disengagement), and where is the potential for distress?
If in the midst of change, how has this change impacted you and those around you? Are you or others satisfied with the change? Resistant to it? Does the change create a sense of distress? Have you or others disengaged from the change and emotional aspects surrounding it? Where are reactions similar and different? Where are people unified in their reactions and reasons for them, and where are they butting heads?
Asking open questions, in a non-judgmental way, in an attempt to understand other perspectives, can go a long way in pinpointing where potential conflicts can arise during change. Soliciting input prior to a change will help you to design a better experience for all involved. The key here is to not just ask, but also to listen. Having the openness to hear alternate perspectives, and being receptive to potential critiques or new ideas to a change you might care a lot about, is quite difficult, but is also a very effective way to create a change that will be well received by most, if not all, involved.
Decisions and changes are often approached in aggregate form. Meaning a one-size fits-all approach to change is frequently employed, and those directly affected by the change are expected to immediately jump on board, whether they like it or not. This is where I think companies get it wrong.
While the decisions might be based on business necessity, and rightfully so, decision makers often forget that the individuals working for the company are an integral part of the business. Those individuals react to change in different ways and adapt to change at different speeds. Remembering this when introducing changes, will create a culture where employees feel valued, listened to, and a part of the change, rather than victims of it.
Which type of employee would you rather have, or what type of employer would you rather work for?