When organizations change employees react. Even before there's a conscious thought about a change, we all have an initial gut reaction that we use to orient ourselves to the change. For change leaders, that's "gut-check" time. The challenge for them is to recognize and deal with this gut reaction before it becomes a stakeholder's entrenched perspective. Because naively assuming stakeholders will take the same balanced view of the need for a change as those planning it is a recipe for indigestion.
While the ancients thought the seat of human emotion was the intestines, we now know that to learn about the gut, we need to look at the brain, specifically the emotional (or limbic) brain. That part works 80-100 times faster than the rational brain. It produces a preconscious reaction based on potential threats – not necessarily to life and limb, but to our emotional investments (see diagram). It sends that quick reaction straight to the gut, where we get a funny feeling in the pit of our stomach that tells us something just isn't right (i.e., "there are too many unknowns associated with this change") and makes an instant judgment about what's happening.
There are four ways a change can be viewed by an individual, and these gut reactions typically come from one or a combination of the four. First, if you don't like the way things are currently, then, change sounds good. If, on the other hand, you have reason to prefer the way things are currently, then, you'll want to block this change. Sometimes, even if you support change, you want to have more control of it and be able to see it as a personal win – if that's not possible, then, you'll likely end up opposing the change. And, lastly, a change can seem either minor, obvious or too complicated, and so, you don't want to invest the time to fully understand the implications.
If you're leading a change, here's what each of those four gut reactions can look like and how you can address them.
Gut Chamber #1: "This is a game-changer!"
Some will imagine this change will make their life better. They'll think, "This will transform the organization and produce efficiencies or make this place great. Everyone's situation will be better." The reality is that there might be improvements in one area but the ultimate outcome – the organization's mission or culture – won't change much. So any hope for a glorious new existence because of this single change goes way too far.
Where does this come from? The current situation is not ideal, so anything new must be better.
Why this is a problem? Those who get carried away with the latest bright, shiny object are set up for disappointment when the reality falls short of too-high expectations.
The Rational thought you'd prefer to hear: "This could be an important step if done the right way."
What change managers can do: You can help them get to this change in perception by offering the new elements without overselling.
Gut Chamber #2: "This stinks!"
Someone else will have issues with the change: "Have you thought about system X or market trend Y? This change doubles our exposure. Our old method is just fine. It might need a tune-up, but why spend so much extra money on a big, new solution. Can we afford it? What about our other priorities?"
Where does this come from? They're highly invested in either what it took to get to the current situation or the path to a future situation.
Why this is a problem: Those who see the current situation as precious and delicate will get carried away with the anxieties of change, and every new thing will be against what they value. This person's negative thinking will either infect others with similar thinking or lead to confrontations that cause people to disengage from the organization.
Alternative Rational thought: "Nothing stays the same for very long, and we have to anticipate how we position ourselves for the future."
What change managers can do: Focus on the history and lore of the organization, and place the change in the context of continued maturation that builds on the great work done to date.
Gut Chamber #3: "Let me suggest a different option."
Some will focus on how they would have gone about making this decision differently. "I have better data, and think you should have used a more cutting-edge approach." or "I would have tested a bigger range of products with more users before making a decision." These don't sound irrational, but they are. There was already someone with expertise who did the research, the analysis and had authority to make the decision. It's irrational to think that by starting essentially from scratch the ultimate decision is going to be any better.
Where does this come from? Desire to own ‘how' the change was determined and planned, because the change is viewed as a threat to their status in the organization.
Why this is a problem: This thinking undermines the original plan and approach. If given credence, it also contributes to a culture where commitments aren't kept.
Alternative Rational thought: "A decision was made. I'm going to help make it work."
What change managers can do: Help them by emphasizing the process used to arrive at the change and how that is in keeping with the organization's long-term vision and planning approach.
Gut Chamber #4: "I don't know what to think."
Someone else will feel the change is insignificant and they do not have the time to worry about its many implications, or to deal with the confrontations, or the lack of detailed information, so they avoid addressing the change directly. Instead they think, "I've got too much going on now to worry about this. I'm just going to trust others will figure this out, and it will work." While it sounds reasonable to put off the reaction, it's actually irrational to think that this new situation doesn't need to be assimilated into their reality, because in some way, they're impacted by the changes.
Where does this come from? There's a desire to have mastery over the world as they understand it.
Why this is a problem: The changes impact everyone. Those who avoid it give the message, "I'm just going to operate in my little world and hope for the best. I can't manage every company priority." If not addressed, this thinking leads to a do-your-own-thing culture. This group is also susceptible to the influence of one of the other three groups.
Alternative Rational thought: "This change is part of what's required to be in this company and is not that different from other's I've dealt with."
What change managers can do: This group needs to be engaged directly by leadership, who must emphasize that this change is happening. As change managers, we should provide this group with details about the change relevant to them, so that they can imagine the consequences and get clarifications where they have questions.
As managers of change, our task is to help those inclined to "go with their gut" go further – beyond their emotional investments. To do so requires effective engagement along with communications that start early and anticipate where stakeholders are coming from.