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How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

The one aspect of human nature that will probably never change is the fear of change itself. Our fondness for continuity is an unconscious evolutionary mechanism that makes us feel secure. Change however, can mean a leap into the unknown that could pose any number of dangers, if not physical - we no longer live in the Stone Age - then emotional or psychological.

For better or worse the need to always feel in control is encoded in our DNA. There's even a name for the fear of change in its most extreme manifestation; Metathesiophobia. Most of us know it as the less frightening and more pronounceable term 'comfort zone'. We create them at home, at work and at play.

Benjamin Franklin once said “When you are finished changing, you are finished.”

Benjamin Franklin once said “When you are finished changing, you are finished.” Wise words but he fails to distinguish between change and forced change. We are all willing to change - otherwise there would be no such thing as a New Year's resolution - but it must be on our own terms because in that way we feel we can control the outcome. Dare anyone foist it upon us however and resistance sets in because we automatically fear what it will bring.

Try telling an employee that change is coming without specifying what it is. Guaranteed they won't automatically think it's going to be about rainbows and unicorns. Science has proved that the human brain is wired to always assume the worst when it comes to the unknown.

Science has proved that the human brain is wired to always assume the worst when it comes to the unknown.

This is probably the most important thing for any organisation to remember when thinking about making changes whether they be structural, cost-cutting or cultural. Actually, the best piece of advice for any organisation contemplating a shake-up can be summed up in an old joke. 'How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but the lightbulb has to want to change'. That's you HR. You are your employees' support system when change is on the way and you want to get them on board and that means addressing concerns individually because everyone will have different reasons for resisting.

These can include fear of losing authority, control, status or job security, their own lack of confidence in learning new skills especially when it comes to ever-changing technologies, a feeling of being overwhelmed if the changes are many and far-reaching, thinking it might involve more work for no extra reward, or antipathy towards new managers or personnel.

Foresight is a bit more tricky but its uncertainties can be mitigated by proper planning and execution.

Probably the best example of a massive change that every worker born before 1970 can remember was the shift to computers and the resistance to giving up our typewriters for something that with one wrong click on a keyboard, could mean hours of work lost in a split second. And yes, that happened... but 25 years later the benefits of that change, and thankfully the creation of the 'undo' function, have proved to be nothing short of revolutionary. Isn't hindsight wonderful? Foresight is a bit more tricky but its uncertainties can be mitigated by proper planning and execution.

The only way to get employees to embrace change is to make them want it as well. The only way to do that is through inclusion, from the idea stage through to implementation. If employees know change might be coming, not just arrived, they will be a lot more open to it after having a chance to digest what it 'will' mean for them, not what it 'might' mean for them because leaving things to the imagination is never a good idea when it comes to change, unless it involves winning the lottery.

Empathy is the key here. HR could do worse than familiarise themselves with the five stages of grief that apply to everyone who feels they have lost something; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Employee reactions to change, if they feel it's threatening, will fall into one of the first four.

Putting out feelers well in advance, and getting people's input will go a long way to smoothing transitions.

The worst resisters may exhibit them all and even if they reach the acceptance stage, as opposed to those who enthusiastically accept the changes from the outset, there could be those who continue to harbour resentments in the longer term. This could lead to damaging disruptions, undermining or derailment of change structures. That's why it's so important to have employees on board from the outset and to give them time to adjust. Prevention is always better than cure. Putting out feelers well in advance, and getting people's input will go a long way to smoothing transitions. If employees feel they are part of the change and not just the fallout victims, it will make a huge difference.

  • HR should firstly clearly define its own role is in the process
  • Prepare: be aware of where you will run into resistance and/or acceptance and everything in between.
  • Communicate: be clear on the goal. Lack of information will lead to insecurity on the part of staff and the rumour mill will be on overdrive
  • Explain why the change/changes gave to happen and how the company and staff will benefit in the long run, or indeed what will happen if the changes are not made without resorting to scaremongering
  • Don't sugarcoat: be truthful as to where or when obstacles might occur. This will boost trust in the process and the feeling that 'we all in this together'
  • Outline the plan and gather input and ideas. HR and managers might be surprised to learn that their employees had been thinking the same things all along
  • Make it clear you understand the impact certain changes might have on employees and that you understand their concerns and frustrations where they exist, and that you are there for them. Be patient and understand why you might bear the brunt of snipes and gripes
  • Encourage: let employees know what kind of technical support or training system is in place for them so they will have the tools they need to overcome any challenges. Above all, they will need to feel secure
  • When it comes to technology be able to demonstrate, not just espouse on how it can help them perform more easily and efficiently
  • Once the process begins, monitor, monitor monitor. Momentum will have to be maintained. It's very easy to slip back into the 'old familiar way' of doing things.

It's always important to remember that sometimes leaving our comfort zone is the only way to develop and grow as human beings. Change can be seen as an opportunity. Often in hindsight, even when it's been forced on us, it has challenged us to do better if only to ensure our survival, which is the most basic hard-wiring we have. If our ancestors had decided to stay in their caves and not ventured into the unknown, we'd probably still be wearing bear skins and cooking buffalo over a fire pit.

Driven by technology and the internet, the workforce has seen revolutionary changes from lifestyle priorites to diversity to flexibility.

Instead we have entered a new century where changes are happening faster than we can keep up with them. Driven by technology and the internet, the workforce has seen revolutionary changes from lifestyle priorites to diversity to flexibility. Fluctuating economic factors have forced many into a less rigid work life balance, or prompted them to abandon their risk-aversion to become self-starters. Globalisation has expanded horizons and opportunities and has sent people on the move like never before.

People may still fear unexpected change but it's happening at pace where there is not much time to sit and digest it or indeed to resist it for long. Luckily there is already a built-in human mechanism to cope with this. It's called adaptibility, or to use a 21st century catchphrase, people are realising that 'if you snooze you lose'.

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