When I first learned of the 6 critical elements of successful change I thought I had hit the jackpot. Here was a tool to both plan the change and analyze the emotional responses of staff: confusion, apathy, anxiety, resistance, and frustration. Whenever I observed these emotions expressed by staff, I could review the change process to pinpoint the cause of the distress and work to fix it.

Key to this tool are the following essential elements of a successful change, and the consequences if one is missing:
  • We have a shared vision of what we wish to accomplish. If not, we may experience confusion.
  • There is a sense of urgency that we must do this. If not, we may experience apathy.
  • We have the capability to implement the desired change. If not, we may experience anxiety.
  • There are incentives for managers and staff to implement this change. If not, we may experience restraint or resistance.
  • There are adequate resources allocated to implement this change. If not, we may experience frustration.
  • We have an action plan that details the deliverables and measures of success. If not, we may experience decreased morale due to false starts.

However, this tool has a significant shortcoming. It does not explicitly state ‘managing the emotions of transition’ as a critical success factor, including facilitating discussion that allows an outlet for anger, fear and depression. Handling strong emotions in the workplace is a skillset that many managers do not have. Moreover, most organizations operate in a culture that says to keep your emotions at home.

Proceeding with a significant change without acknowledging and addressing the feelings it evokes in people is like walking through a field of landmines without a detector. Additionally, hearing people share their reactions to change provides important information to help you more fully understand the change process you are managing.

The change, of course, is the event. Transition is the process by which staff experience the change. William Bridges describes the process of managing the transition in his model, Endings, Neutral Zones and New Beginnings.

Bridges states, “Transition starts with an ending. This is paradoxical but true. This first phase of transition begins when people identify what they are losing and learn how to manage these losses. They determine what is over and being left behind, and what they will keep. These may include relationships, processes, team members or locations.”

He suggests three questions to ask as part of the ‘endings’ stage of the change-management process: What is changing? What will actually be different because of the change? Who’s going to lose what?

Answers to the first question, ‘What is changing?’ provide an important rational description of the event.

The change could be, for example, a switch to an electronic health record, or divestment of a program, or adopting a new program. In your description of the change you might also describe what services or programs are affected and the anticipated timeline.

Answers to the second question, ‘What will actually be different?’ provide valuable information about a) the technical aspects of change and b) all the stakeholders to be included when thinking about who is affected by the change.

With a change to implement electronic health records, for example, what will be different is that paper records will be transferred into digital format. New processes and procedures will be put into place to enter and access the records, with new roles identified for each of the new protocols. The technical part of the exercise is to list the new protocols and associated roles, including roles or positions that are new, and roles and positions that are discontinued. From this exercise you can describe the employees who are affected by this change.

Answers to the third question, ‘Who’s going to lose what?’ requires discussion with staff so that you can understand their perspective and feelings, and give them the space to voice it.

It is the discussion of ‘loss’ that will most likely lead to staff expressing their emotions of anger or sadness. In the case of the electronic health record for example:

  • The employment of some staff may be terminated, so you might expect emotional responses in those individuals, as well as potentially in the staff who are staying but who are dealing with lost relationships, or uncertainty about what might happen to their positions in the future.
  • Some staff may be asked to learn new skills in standardized scheduling, data entry and storage, thus losing their previous ‘expertise’ as ‘master scheduler.’ Their talent used to be the prized skill that other staff relied on, but it is now no longer be of value.

You can expect that staff who are affected by this change are going to have feelings about it. Suppressing emotions in the workplace may seem comfortable in the short term as you avoid intense and awkward discussions. Like the landmines, however, those emotions will explode at some future time, often when you are least prepared.

When facilitating the discussion about ‘what is being lost’ managers need to avoid the trap of making assumptions and talking in generalities about how people will or should react. Thoughts such as, ‘there is nothing lost, we are actually adding a program,’ or ‘there is always resistance to change,’ or ‘we just have to grit our teeth and move on’ presumes that everyone will respond to a change in the same way.

A more useful assumption to make is that how a change is experienced will vary from person to person. People will have emotions that are particular to their own role, work experience and personality. It is important to let each person speak for themselves. You, as manager, can then acknowledge the emotion as part of the ‘endings’ phase of the change process. Some managers also let individual staff or teams create their own ceremony to mark the ‘ending’. At the very least a simple, sincere thank you from the manager is supportive.

To support a climate to process the emotions you need a plan to handle these interactions with staff when they occur.

Use these 6 practices to handle the expression of emotions at work:
  • Have Kleenex available in your office and at meetings.
  • Monitor your own emotions and stay resourceful when you are in the role of assisting the employee. Your goal is to allow people to vent at an appropriate level (aggression is not acceptable), and then calm them to the point they can discuss their concern.
  • Give the person time to collect themselves if they request it or they are beyond calming. It can help to ask them to stand and move to another seat as postural change can have a calming effect. You may also say you just need to leave the room for a minute, and then return shortly after.
  • Stay curious and withhold judgement. Acknowledge their emotion, ‘I see something is upsetting you’, and ask questions to elicit information from them at an appropriate time, such as, ‘how do you feel your work will change?’ Clarify again what is changing and what is staying the same, if the change will not affect them in the way they feared.
  • Ask, ‘what can I do to help?’
  • Summarize the discussion and confirm with the person their understanding of the issue and any actions you have decided as an outcome of the discussion.

The ability to facilitate discussion about emotions in one-on-one or team meetings is a core skill set needed by all managers. Developing this skill requires the belief that there is value in the expression of emotion at work. In fact, I now think of the critical success model as having a seventh element; ‘We establish a climate within which we facilitate discussion that supports staff to process the emotions linked to this change.’