Introduction to Emotions in organizational change processes
Changes and transformations are the day-to-day of organizations. I believe that there should not be a single C-Level committee that does not have the word “Transformation” on its agenda. Digital transformation, financial transformation, HR transformation, Operational transformation … motivated by external elements like customers, competitors, technology, new business models, global pandemics …) or by internal problems to be solved like efficiency, costs, quality, obsolescence, etc.
When you start your transformation journey, there are a few elements that we tend to forget or not prioritize so much and that, from my experience, are absolutely key, as key as the motivation for the change or the strategy itself. The first of these elements are emotions during change process.
In most of the change processes I have seen, sponsors usually focus on the objectives to be achieved, internal and external sales, marketing, governance and budget, leaving the change process as such as secondary. Most think that the change process is to hold a 1-hour meeting a month and send a guideline to the employees, so the result of this type of process is usually quite mediocre.
The most advanced know that not only the above is important, but that the way to implement the change is key to ensure its success. And they apply change processes such as ADKAR, Lewin, Kotter, Rogers curve for innovation, etc. and they facilitate the entire process, so the results are much more deep and sustainable.
Only in very rare cases, I have heard that in addition to the above, a focus is placed on how people live the process of change, and how we can facilitate the emotional impact suffered by those affected by change, in the different phases of it. If we do it, we will achieve not only a successful and sustainable implementation of change, but the people who have experienced it will have felt accompanied and important.
So today I will focus precisely on this last point due to the relevance it has in the success of the implementation of the change, since if we think about a Mindfulness Organization, it is not only important to focus on the result, but on how it is reached, and how it is done in a conscious way and priotizing people well-being as much us possible.
And to tell you all this, I will rely on the famous theory of the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of the phases of grief.
What happens to us in the Change processes?
The important change processes in our life, whether personal or professional, motivated by ourselves or others, lead us to the appearance of a relevant set of emotions that we label as negative or positive, and most of the time, with the first ones we don´t know what to do. This emotions are fear, anger, sadness, frustration, blockage, disappointment, apathy, regret, unhappiness, boredom, disinterest, confusion, overwhelm, pain, restlessness, helplessness, bitterness, desolation, anguish, skepticism, dismay, etc.
When we do not pay attention to organizational change models such as John Kotter’s, which indicates that changes should be as participatory as possible, that is, involving those people who are going to be affected by it in the implementation of the change, and we choose to impose the change (sometimes there is no option), we must be aware that we are going to make the people impacted by the change live a grief. And as such, we also must manage it.
In the processes of change, several things happen to us, on the one hand we are more vulnerable because something has happened that has completely taken us out of our comfort zone, and on the other hand, all the emotions that we mentioned before with the ones we are not used to live together, appear, that is, we enter fully into the terrain of uncertainty.
Stages of Grief from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross changed the way the West interpreted death. She was a pioneer in studying the emotions of people who know they are going to die and in proposing palliative care. She created her theory of stages of grief to be able to face everything that happens to us in life from consciousness, serenity and humanity, which she applied to both the dying and the family members with whom she worked. She set a trend and left us an undeniable legacy, which is still fully valid. If you are interested, you can visit her foundation.
Surely you have heard of the five or seven stages (there are several evolutions of the model) that we navigate when a change occurs.
When the event that triggers the change appears, we react first, according to some models, with concern if the change that has a previous phase (it is announced that there will be changes) or we directly go to shock(the changes are executed) where the predominant emotion it is the fear of the unknown, because we enter fully into a world of uncertainty, it is like «I can’t believe it …»
Then we move on to denial, «this can’t be happening to me …», «they are wrong …», «this change is going to be a failure …» being the predominant emotions anger, irritation …
And when you see what is happening to you and that everything around you indicate that the change is real, frustration arrives, you are full of doubts, you do not know what role you play in this new scenario. «And now what do I do??»
The emotional critical point is when you see that everyone is convinced that change is inevitable and that it is not possible to go back, going into depression, where you feel powerless, you do not see the light, you make yourself small, you think you are not going to being able to get out of there and the emotion of nostalgia floods you. «how good we were before …»
Fortunately, this is an initial phase of descent into hell that then begins to rise, because humans are able to adapt to everything, and we begin to sympathize with the new situation by going to Experimentation, with curiosity, we learn how to deal with it by going to the Decision with some enthusiasm and finally we integrate it into our life with confidence.
In the depression phase you have to be careful, because you run the risk of staying on it or that the upward curve does not reach the end.
It is also important to indicate that not all people go through all states or experience the same emotions, but it is important to always keep in mind that this model is a good tool to take the pulse of the impact of change in your organization and know what to do; depending on the phase in which we are and the predominant emotion or emotions in that phase.
The importance of emotions in the processes of change is evident as we have seen so far, and it seems quite evident that it is also important to focus on them during the stages of change, but before entering there, we are going to learn a little more about the emotions.
An emotion is energy in motion, and we already know that energy is neither created nor destroyed but transformed … so the same thing happens to emotions, we cannot create or destroy them, but we can transform them.
In coactive coaching we do not talk about positive or negative emotions, but about comfortable or uncomfortable emotions. It is as if you have a small stone in your shoe, you stop and remove it. This is the same for emotions, with a comfortable emotion we do not do anything with it because it doesn´t bothers you, but with the uncomfortable, you have to do something because it makes you feel unwell.
Also on the other hand you have to keep in mind that any emotion that you resist, persists. It’s like Groundhog Day, you always end up in the same place. For example, if your tendency is to think that people attack you, you will feel attacked in many circumstances and you will always be on the defensive. If you avoid getting angry or conflict, all situations will lead to situations where you have to work hard not to get angry or to avoid conflict. All this does is rob you of a lot of energy.
And the only way to get rid of this is to get fully into that emotion that you avoid and find out what is hidden there. That is, you transform the energy of that emotion to break the repetitive pattern.
In general, nobody has taught us to manage our emotions, and look at what I say, manage and not control, because unfortunately or fortunately we cannot control the appearance or disappearance of an emotion, but we can realize that we have it and consciously choose what do we do with it.
And even though Goleman was already talking about emotional intelligence in 1995, about self-management and relationship management, I think we still have a pending issue in most of the organizations that I know.
And someone will ask, “and all this, what value does it have?” Well, I would say a lot, because to have a life fullness is not always being happy, but living the whole register of emotions that life brings us and being able to manage them in a healthy way.
Facilitate change or grief
I hope that until now it has been understood how important emotions are in our life in general and in change processes in particular, and that we cannot leave this element of the change process unattended, it must be facilitated because it is a key piece of the change implementation success.
On a personal level, there is nothing that will prevent us from the grieving process if the change that has occurred is imposed on us and is not what we expected, but we can live it accompanied in a more conscious way and learn that:
• Understand that there are many changes that are not within our control.
• That we cannot control what changes take place around us, but we can manage the impact that these changes have on us emotionally.
• Learn to live with our emotions and take advantage of them.
• Uncomfortable emotions help us evolve, and even take a big turn in our lives.
At the organizational level, it is essential to facilitate change and emotions during the change process, both in the case that it is made «co-created» or imposed (grief). Obviously, the emotional stages are going to be a little different depending on how the change is, its complexity, its scope and the people who experience it, but we will know what stage we are in and therefore, we will be able to accompany people in a more efficient way.
And if we do not facilitate the change and emotions, the impact will be very negative, with loss of talent, decreased performance and mediocre results.