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0209 PD: When emotions run high: Coping with organizational change

Aadron Rausch Published on 14 January 2009

Think about the last time your organization went through a major change.

Maybe you added a new product or service line and your business began to grow. Maybe you came upon hard economic times and downsizing was the end result. Whatever the change, good or bad, the result was some instability in the company and probably high emotion among employees. The fact is, change is hard and it leaves people feeling a little off balance, a little insecure and a bit uncomfortable with the unknown.

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Many in the field of organizational leadership describe the process of organizational change as similar to the process of grief – it may sound odd, but in fact, change means that employees need to let go of what was and adapt to what the future will be. Kübler-Ross describes this as a movement through different stages that begin with shock and denial and progress through anger, bargaining, depression, testing and finally acceptance.

What is important to keep in mind is that with each of these stages, there are different emotions involved. The challenge is coping with the emotion and creating a culture of recognition and acceptance that allows employees to move through each of the stages until they finally adapt to the overall change (see Figure 1*).

“It is becoming increasingly recognized that skills in managing your own and other people’s emotions are as critical as anything else for work success,” says Sigal Barsade, academic codirector of Wharton’s Leading Organizational Change program, and Associate Professor of Management at Wharton (University of Pennsylvania).

Employee emotions are powerful predictors of organizational productivity. When people are pumped up and feeling positive the results can be greater productivity and reduced absenteeism.

However, negativity can spread through an organization like a contagious disease, impacting employee energy, productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism.

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So, how do we help employees cope with emotions and move through the stages of change in ways that result in the least disruption and a swift return to stability?

• Acknowledge that change is occurring and that people will have many different emotions.

• Clarify what the change means and how it can impact employees and processes.
Keep information flowing and establish ways for employees to ask questions and express emotions on a regular basis. Use many different forms of communication to meet individual needs.

• Recognize that some employees will refuse to accept that change will impact them.
Help employees move from denial to anger. Offer opportunities to vent anger and accept it as a natural and acceptable emotion. Give people space and time to stew. Try not to push back or judge employees – remember the anger is a necessary part of the change process.

• When employees move through anger and into bargaining, it is a last-ditch effort to turn back the clock, make the change stop and get back to some form of normalcy and stability.
It is important to acknowledge the feelings, but employees don’t need false hope that will soon fail and send them back to anger. Instead, acknowledge the loss of what was and emphasize the future opportunities.

• As employees recognize that change is going to happen, we often see some pretty low feelings.
Some employees will even express a sense of isolation and “aloneness.” Be a support to employees; create opportunities for support groups and ways for people to connect with one another. Don’t be afraid that bringing people together will be detrimental. Right now, employees need opportunities to support one another, be validated and to feel part of the group.

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• As employees finally start to crawl out of the unhappiness and loss they have experienced, they slowly begin to test the new waters.
Provide opportunities for people to get their feet wet. Add new changes a little at a time and provide mechanisms for continuous feedback to address challenges as they occur. Demonstrate commitment to a smooth transition; this is a crucial step in the process of change. Failure to put in place steps to address challenges can easily move employees back to feeling out of control and isolated.

• Finally, employees make it to the acceptance stage.
Congratulate them, and recognize their effort and hard work. Help them to feel permanency and stability in the changed organization. PD

*References and figures omitted but are available upon request at

—Excerpts from Clarian Arnett Health Occupational Health News, December 2008

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