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Lessons in Leadership

How to Help People Accept Change

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If you want someone to accept change, you must first understand why they may resist. By anticipating their likely reaction to your plan or proposal, you can make intelligent decisions about how to introduce the change. There are four things to understand: (1) emotions are inevitable, (2) change equals loss, (3) acceptance requires planning, and (4) certain factors increase resistance.

1. Change is an emotional experience
One of the most fundamental facts about change is that all change is an emotional experience. Think about a recent change at home or at work. How did you feel in that situation? Worried, depressed, sad, angry, stressed out? Or excited, happy, motivated, energized, and optimistic? Maybe your feelings were both positive and negative. But the odds are that you felt something. If you remember the change, it's probably because there was an emotion attached to it.

Understanding normal emotional responses to change can help you anticipate reactions. The initial response to change is often negative. People seem to automatically scan a new situation for anything that is not to their benefit. Then they complain about it. This negative focus often blocks their awareness of positive aspects.

On the other hand, some changes are eagerly anticipated and welcomed. However, these too are frequently followed by a period of disappointment and regret – for example, the well-known phenomenon of “buyer's remorse” upon purchasing a home. In these situations, the initial optimism and excitement prevent the person from seeing a complete picture, resulting in unanticipated disappointments later on. The bottom line is that you should always expect a negative reaction to any change. If you don't get one, just be happy.

2. Change always means loss
The main reason for negative reactions to change is that people always lose something. You may gain as well, but a loss is always involved. When you get promoted, you gain a better title, higher pay, and more recognition – but you lose your the feeling of comfort and competence from your previous job. When you get married, you gain a loving life partner (hopefully), but you take a hit in the areas of freedom and autonomy. And when you have a child, you gain one of life's greatest blessings, but you definitely lose money, time, and sleep. At work, the losses that come with change typically fall into one of four areas:

Safety & Security: You don't feel as certain that you will continue to be employed.
Relationships: You lose contact with people who matter to you or the nature of the relationship changes.
Competence: You feel less certain of your ability to perform your duties or produce results.
Mission & Purpose: Your work used to be part of your reason for being, but it no longer feels that way.

3. Acceptance requires planning
If you want people to accept change, you need to invest time in planning and communication. All too often, managers and colleagues (or parents and spouses, for that matter) just throw a change out there and expect others to say, “Well, that's just dandy.” These people are living in a fantasy world. To get others to accept change, the first step is to understand what, from their perspective, they feel that they are losing. If you can first empathize with their feelings, then begin to compensate for their loss, you have taken a giant first step towards acceptance.

Here's how to manage the four critical acceptance factors:

  • Caring: People need to feel that those who have power care about their concerns and will listen to them. Listening to people's reactions is just as important as explaining the reasons for a change. Managers often forget this.
  • Control: People are more likely to accept change if they have some input into how it will be implemented. Ask for opinions or suggestions about any aspect where input may actually be used. Never ask for input that you don't plan to consider. That will only make things worse.
  • Choice: Where possible, give people options. The more choices people have, the more they feel in control. Some of the energy that previously went into complaining will then be diverted to decision-making.
  • Competence: People are more likely to adapt when they feel that they have the skills, knowledge, and abilities to succeed. The faster you can help them move through the learning curve, the faster they will accept the change. Keep in mind that “learning” can include people, places, and cultures as well as skills and tasks.

So before you begin to implement your change, take time to develop a change plan that incorporates those four features.

4. Factors that increase resistance
Finally, you should also be aware of circumstances that tend to make resistance worse:

  • "Important expectations about the future are not going to be met.
  • Management is not trusted.
  • People don't understand the reasons for the change.
  • The effect of the change is personal (pay, benefits, job responsibilities, title, office space, etc.).
  • Some people feel they are affected more adversely than others.
  • There is a long period of uncertainty about what is going to happen.
  • Many changes are occurring at the same time.
  • Change has been ongoing, with little let-up.

When any of these factors are present, you should be even more diligent about planning and communication.

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