Dealing with Change

By Peter L DeHaan

There has been a great deal of change in our household over the past year. Last summer our daughter got married and moved out of state. This spring our son graduated from college and got married the next weekend. In this short time, our family changed substantially.

Although neither child have really lived with us since they departed for college, there have had been brief intervals, such as the occasional weekend or school break, when they have returned to the nest. Additionally, on holidays they often show up for welcomed visits. Even so, our nest has been effectively empty for quite some time. Notwithstanding, people have been inquiring about their perceived change in our status. Last week, a friend asked how my wife and I were dealing with the empty-nest syndrome. "It doesn't seem empty," I remarked dryly. "Even though they're gone, their stuff is still here!" In time, I hope that each child's belongings can be consolidated into one room until the day they are ready to accept full possession of their possessions. Yes, things are changing, albeit good and normal changes.

Another change has been my wife’s work. Although her employment has remained intact, her company's local office was closed. She now makes an hour-long drive three days a week to a nearby city.

There are also many significant changes happening in the United States and globally. There is the credit crisis, the recession, the woes of the automotive industry, increased unemployment, companies laying off staff or shutting down, various state governments scrambling to accommodate lost revenue and prop up budget shortfalls, and various bailout plans that are increasingly challenging to track. The amount and degree of these changes is formidable and threatens to overwhelm us. Yes, as a nation and a world, we are experiencing a time of great change.

When considering change, there are three general truisms: change is opposed, change is loss, and change is mourned. These apply at home, for our nation and our world – and at work in the call center.

Change is opposed: Change represents a deviation from the status quo, from what can be expected, regardless if it is good or bad. Change represents moving from the known to the unknown. Therefore, it is normal that people will oppose change and resist it to whatever degree they can. This might mean clinging to the old ways, lobbying against the change, or rebelling by acting out, offering resistance, or passive-aggressive behavior.

Change is loss: All change means giving up something – even if it is something bad. Many people view change as a "zero-sum-game," which implies that there are winners and losers. When things change, they assume that someone else must have won and therefore they have lost. This assumption is natural when the change that is taking place was not their idea.

Change is mourned: When something is lost, that loss is lamented and grieved. Sometimes the loss is perceived (it didn't happen) or potential (it might happen), whereas other times it is real and tangible (it did happen). Regardless, the emotional reaction to that loss is mourning. Just as there are steps to grieving (be it five, seven, or ten), mourning the loss wrought by change will progressively proceed down a similar path.

However, it doesn't need to be this way. Change can be accepted if it is understood, occurs in small increments, and is within the control of those affected by it. This trio of suggestions may not offer much relief when we're confronted with global or national upheaval that is foisted upon us, because those situations are not within our control, nor do they generally occur in small doses – though we can seek to understand them. But this advice is helpful when responding to changes in our personal lives, like children marrying and moving on, or work situations, such as layoffs, job cuts, restructuring, office closings, and wage freezes or pay cuts. In these circumstances, we can make a reasonable and successful effort to accept and even embrace change.

Change that is understood: We can best accept and deal with change if we understand it. That doesn't mean we need to agree with the reasons for the change, merely that we comprehend why the decision for change was made. In Candy's situation, it was clearly communicated that cuts needed be made and pointed out that the physical location of her office was not germane to her organization's success. Though the work being done there was important, it could just as easily be done from the main location.

Change in small increments: Change made over time and in small doses has a much better chance of acceptance and becomes more manageable. For Candy, the decision to close the local office was discussed over several months, thoughtfully planned, and a phased transition timetable was established. This gave time for the change to sink in and for Candy and her coworkers to adjust mentally and emotionally as the change transpired.

Change within control of those affected by it: Whenever people can experience some degree of control over a change, they are more likely to handle it positively. Although Candy did not have any input over the office being closed, she was afforded a great deal of control over the ramifications. She was given the option to work at home, she and her boss decided how many days a week she would work in the main office, and she has a great deal of discretion over which days those are and the number of hours she works on those days. Each of these has served to make the office closing more palatable.

A final consideration is directed at those who make decisions for change. Yes, it will be opposed, viewed as loss, and mourned, but you can take steps to greatly minimize those responses by communicating the reasons necessitating the change, making the change in small increments over time, and providing as much control as possible to those who will be most affected by it.

In the end, we might not escape change, but we can alleviate some of the negative reactions to change.  That is successful change management.

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