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The Relationship between Emotions and Change Management

It’s clear that emotions and change management are inextricably linked. How we feel about the change drives our behaviour, which is why you’ll often hear people talking about winning “hearts and minds”. Yet, the relationship between emotions and change is not typically well understood in business.

I was talking about the emotional landscape of change, recently, as an alternative to the change curve, which implies a limited range of emotional experiences (mostly negative) that are experienced in a linear fashion. On my way home my mind wandered to how I might represent it, and the image above is the result.

I hope this little nautical jaunt around, what can be a difficult subject, is both enjoyable and helpful..

Navigating Emotions

I like the idea of navigating through emotions at during change in the form of a map.  There’s a certain logic that suggests there will be greater uncertainty and ambiguity during at the outset of change, and a well-managed change will become more positive, but in reality it’s far messier than that. 

What I’ve tried to represent here is the range of emotions that can be experienced during change, rather than a particular order. I’ll come back to that. I’ve also highlighted a few tools (in clouds) that can help: the case for change, vision and change impact analysis. That doesn’t imply that they represent a complete change management toolkit, but I see them as the foundation that underpins change activities.

In the map, I represent pleasant emotions with green text and unpleasant emotions in red; with examples of accompanying thoughts in black text. That doesn’t mean that pleasant emotions are inherently good or unpleasant emotions inherently bad, even if they might lead resistance. Anxiety can be the stimulus that makes us prepare more effectively. Enthusiasm might lead us to overlook risks..

On the emotions themselves, the words represent emotional buckets and you might not quite identify with them as labels. Hopefully the explanations  will make sense. When I work with emotions I tend to give people a number of alternative labels to try out (e.g. anxiety, fear, concern, worry, caution).

Starting out

In the “old world” (if there is ever such a thing), there is a point of disruption. In the psychological sense, that simply means that something changes. We perceive any change in the situation through the lens of our mindset, or motivations.

Even at this point there are a number of potential emotions at play.

Because so much of what we read about change is negative, I’ll go to the Waves of Enthusiasm first. It’s not only “change junkies” that can get excited about change. If you’ve been banging your head against the wall, waiting for things to change for some time, this might well be your first response.

Those waves of enthusiasm might take you all the way through the change, or not!

Getting past anger and fear

If your first thought is that the change is wrong, the perhaps the Gulf of  Anger is where you’ll find yourself. That anger is helpful if it leads you to confront and ask questions. In other words, if you engage.

The Case for Change is an important tool here, for explaining the rationale for the change and creating a degree of discomfort that helps people to take the first steps.

However, the Case for Change doesn’t provide a destination. Only a reason to start moving. Without clarity, there can be uncertainty and, therefore anxiety – or you reach Cape Fear. A compelling vision paints an appealing picture of the future and provides comfort that it is achievable. The vision helps to initiate conversations about what the change means – and forms the basis for a Change Impact Analysis (complemented by more detail about the change). My view is that the Change Impact Analysis forms the bridge to all other aspects of change, such as engagement, communication and training (yes, that’s what the black thing is).

In many cases, anxiety is the biggest barrier to change in organisations, and there are many reasons for that. Often these are avoidable. For example, if people are monitored heavily on their day to day output, then they will fear ‘dropping the ball’ during change – and rightly so.

One emotion that is often overlooked during change is boredom. Although it might be less commonly experienced, those people that started off feeling excited about the change might have had their high hopes dashed. In the cold light of day, what they thought was going to be an ambitious, exciting, transformation change might be more incremental, and a bit underwhelming. Hence, they might get stuck in the Bog of Boredom.

The first real goal of any change management process is to get the acceptance of the need to change. After acceptance (which can include ’embracing’) the change, confidence is critical. Unfortunately on many change programmes confidence-building activities, such as action planning and training, take place before acceptance has been achieved and they miss the mark.

The left field (or bank)

Anyway, if you follow the map up from the point of disruption, you’ll arrive first at Sullen Sands. Sullenness is a funny old emotion, kind of the grumpy sibling of boredom. Hence, “what’s the point” – which suggests that “I don’t see how I fit into all this”.  This in turn could lead to a feeling of detachment, which recognises the significance of the change but still doesn’t identify with it. This could be real – they might just be an interested bystander standing on the Shore of Detachment, but they could be in de Nile… (sorry).

If you are standing on the Shore of Detachment, from your position of safety you might just start to engage in your own way, by ‘poking the bear’. You’ll perhaps have been in meetings with people that just seem to revel in provoking a response. This is mischievousness. “Mischief” might have negative connotations for some readers, but it’s felt as enjoyable. And it can have its uses too, because as the map says, from here flows creativity. During change, creative solutions are not only useful, but can be in short supply – because anxiety is the killer of creativity.

Reaching the Rock of Confidence

It’s arguable that feeling safe to try is the most important factor in reaching the point of acceptance. But you do need to get beyond acceptance to fully embrace change and perform in the “new world”, and confidence is both a motivator and an enabler of change.

If you can get onto that Rock of Confidence, from there you might feel at ease and sail through on the Strait of Serenity (or calm), or get back onto the wave of enthusiasm.

The Social Minefield

That said, we’ve only talked about one set of emotions thus far. These are what are termed Somatic Emotions (how our response to goals and rules colours our experience of physiological arousal). Before declaring victory and reaching the new world, there are some Transactional Emotions to deal with. These represent our feelings about perceived gains or losses in our social interactions.

First, the resentment. The Resentful Sharks are waiting to get you if are feeling sorry for yourself and hard done by as a result of the change.

Next, the Storms of Shame. When you’re struggling to get to grips with new ways of working, for example, you might feel like you’re failing your colleagues – letting the side down.

Then there’s the Vortex of Humiliation, that can suck you in if your ego is feeling a bit bruised. Maybe you’ve lost power or status as result of the change, but maybe you’re just trying your best to get to grips with it and feel a bit silly because everyone else seems to be doing ok..

Finally (but not in a linear sense) you might have to deal with the pirates of guilt. Aye, me hearties, they’ll make you walk the plan if you’re feeling bad because your colleagues – say – are suffering in some way. ‘Survivor guilt’ for example, if people are losing their jobs.

There are, of course, positive ‘social’ emotions to be experienced too.  When you feel like you’ve helped other people succeed, you might climb Humility Hill. And reflecting on your own achievements during the change process, Pride Peak. If you feel that you’ve been a ‘good person’ in you can wander through the Valley of Virtue, while you might also realise that the whole process has been handled well, and you’ve been treated well as you walk in the Gardens of Gratitude.

Beware the Ill Winds

I did say that this wasn’t a linear process. There’s no single path through change, and we don’t just travel in one direction. We’re just not that straightforward. A negative interaction, a dent to our confidence, and we could end up being picked up by the ill winds and being dumped down anywhere on the map…

Where next?

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this trip around our emotional world.

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