Coping with Emotions During Change

There’s a recurring theme in the press about leadership – the recent bushfires in Australia have magnified the importance of leadership.  And how being a leader isn’t a title. People take notice of leaders even more so when there’s a crisis. The ability to cope with the emotional responses of the people you lead requires both a high degree of self-awareness and an ability to connect with others.

In our workshops we’re noticing that the subject of how to cope with emotions during change crops up a lot.  We often get asked questions about how do I as a leader actually cope with the emotional side of change? How do I cope with those emotions that will be coming straight at me? And they’re great questions to ask because often when we’re put in a position of leadership we forget that we are actually human too! 

The topic is a big one so we’ll probably revisit this over several posts.  Human beings are complex – there’s no one size fits all. But there are practical steps you can take that will help.  For this post I’m taking inspiration from Bob Sutton. In his article he talks about the four remedies for being a good boss in bad times.  I’ve changed the order around because the first one on my list is compassion. We cannot connect with others if we lack compassion.    

1.Compassion – put yourself in the shoes of the other person.  Think about what it’s like for those people who are actually going through the change.  It’s important to connect with people at a human level and show that you get them. That you truly understand what the change means to them.  This means putting your own feelings to one side so that you can truly hear what they’re saying. The other side of compassion is being compassionate with yourself. Leadership is a challenging road to travel. You as a leader don’t have to be perfect.  And you need to acknowledge when you make mistakes so you can move on and stay resourceful.

2. Predictability – being blind-sided by change can evoke an emotional response.  Martin Seligman’s research quoted by Sutton, found that we can develop resilience if we know how long to stay on high alert.  The air-raid sirens in World War II were a way of keeping people on high alert. Once the danger had passed the sirens gave the all clear.  One of the reasons we become fatigued with change is when there is no predictability and we’re in a constant state of high alert. What can you tell people about the knowns of change? There will be plenty of unknowns but focusing on what you know will happen and when, means people are less likely to be blind-sided.  

One of my relatives was put on notice of potential redundancy.  The original timeframes slipped and another date was given. All this time, my relative was on a high-state of alert and very stressed.  So if you’re giving timeframes, be realistic about what is possible. As a leader it’s tempting to be over-optimistic about what is possible to avoid resistance.   Far better to give a longer time frame that you have a chance of beating than the other way around!   

3.Reason Why – help people understand why the changes are necessary and this has to make sense to them.  Make it simple to understand and keep repeating the message. During times of stress and uncertainty we need reminders about what we’re doing and why.

Over the years I’ve noticed that people are more likely to become frustrated and angry if the reason for the change doesn’t make sense.  Or if the rationale for the change seems counter productive. One organisation went through a huge round of redundancies which was positioned as a change of strategy.  The next year, a similarly large number of people were recruited in the same type of roles. The change was really about cost savings. Your reason why therefore has to be transparent. 

4. Sense of Control –  one of the factors increasing emotional responses to change is because we lose that sense of control.  Help people gain back that sense of control. Let people know how long the process will last so they can plan around that.  If it’s likely to take years – how can you break it down into smaller time frames. Create certainty with what you know. Even in a complex and uncertain world, we can develop shorter time horizons to let people know what will happen in the next month, for example.

As a leader, coping with the emotional side of change comes back to being compassionate and keeping your ego in check.  If you can be compassionate with yourself and be compassionate with others then that means that we can put a pause in our own emotional responses so that you can make a more connected response to them.

We often shy away from acknowledging emotions in the workplace, but they’re always present.  What challenges do you have when it comes to coping with emotional responses during change?

Change Optimised

Change Optimised

Our mission is to ignite the entrepreneurial DNA of your organisation to help you make sense of a complex and uncertain future and to ensure your people have the foundational skills for the future of work.

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