Preparation Is The Key To Managing Change

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

Managing change in the workplace.

A wise person once said that the only thing that is constant in our society is change. How true that is. Think about the changes that have taken place in your world in your lifetime. Regardless of how old you are, things have changed and it seems as if the rate of change is speeding up. If you were born at the turn of the century, you were born before man had learned how to fly, but today, space travel and supersonic flight are not only a reality, but also commonplace.

There is a tendency to think that change is a modern phenomenon - something that is peculiar to our culture and advanced technology. However, the only difference between our times and those of the past is that we simply know more about change and are more aware of it than our ancestors. The electronic advances in information transmission mean that while it took six weeks in 1805 for the news of Nelson's victory at the battle of Trafalgar to reach North America, the details of a new national budget are reported and begin to impact on world money markets within 60 seconds of the announcement.

We all know more about more than ever before. Our educational systems and the media have combined to ensure that everyone's knowledge base is far greater than it was in the past. For example, the battery was invented in the last few years of the 18th century and for decades only a few scientists knew about it. Today, the battery is just another part of the grade school curriculum and another topic along with radar, microcomputers and lasers.

Since change is inevitable and ever present, why is it that some people complain about either the changes themselves or the speed at which they are taking place? Why is it that some organizations and people are so reluctant to change and so resistant to anything new? These attitudes are all quite natural even though they may frustrate those who welcome change and who want to have the latest and try the newest.

The reasons for resistance lie in the fact that all change is stressful, that it is often more comfortable to stay with the familiar than to try to learn or use something new, and that some people and organizations are more adaptable, more favourably disposed to change and better able to cope with it than are others.

The great Canadian stress researcher, Dr. Hans Selye, found that coping with constant change can cause stress in any animal and that too much stress could even lead to death. Doctors Holmes and Rahe developed the well-known stress test, which measures the amount of stress brought on by change and predicts whether or not you may become ill as a result. In essence, change can make you sick and some people are sick of change.

Man's greatest fear is that of the unknown, so it is not unreasonable that we are anxious when confronted with change and that we are comfortable when things stay the same. This is particularly true when the changes are foisted upon us and we are asked, or forced, to adapt, to learn new skills, to use a new process or piece of equipment, or simply to move to a new department, home, or school. It is even worse when change and the unknown go hand in hand. Sometimes this happens when a company is downsizing and the employees don't know whether they will be the next to be fired or what changes might be forced upon them.

Computers have probably affected more people and more organizations than any other change. Whether it's the secretary whose trusty typewriter has been replaced with the word processor, or the grocery store clerk who finds that a machine now reads the prices, this particular change touches us all.

Why are some people and organizations better at accepting change than others? Successful adaptation begins with a state of mind. It also involves the ability to learn new skills and to develop expertise in managing the change process. We know that some people are more open to change than others. Studies have shown that people who seek change and welcome it are more successful because of their readiness to consider it.

These people are called "psychologically hardy''. They are characterized by three important attributes: they like to accept challenges and respond well to them; they like to exercise some degree of control over their lives and environment; and once they decide on a course of action, they are committed to it and stay with it until it is completed. All of these are simply a state of mind that can be possessed by anyone.

The ability to learn new skills is related to the management of the change process. Knowing that people fear the unknown, that they are better adaptors if they have some control, and that they don't like to have changes sprung on them, should result in a slow, methodical introduction of change in such a way that everyone is informed, prepared and involved. Adequate lead time, advance preparation and appropriate training can eliminate a great deal of the natural resistance to change.

If you know that change is coming then prepare for it. We are very adaptable creatures but sometimes we forget to give ourselves a chance to get ready. We can avoid the trauma of rapid change, or future shock, by recognizing that change is inevitable and somewhat predictable and by preparing in advance for it. People, systems and organizations that resist change are headed for problems. Preparing for change and accepting it is not only healthier and less stressful, it enables us to be happier and more productive.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.