CHANGE AND A SENSE OF LOSS

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop conducted by the current chairman emeritus and founder of the Levinson Institute — Psychologist Harry Levinson, Ph.D. — focused on the topic of organizational change.  Early in my management career, the insights of Dr. Levinson contained in his monthly “Levinson Newsletter” were part of the regular reading diet for me and many of my colleagues.

While much of that workshop’s exact content has long faded from memory, one thing Harry said has always remained fresh in my thinking and is often something I share in my various workshops for managers.  Talking about the process of change, Harry advised us to always remember that “all change involves loss and all loss must be mourned”.

The more you think about this nugget of insight, the more powerful it becomes.  Although we often associate the grieving process with death, actually we humans emotionally experience feelings of loss,  sorrow, and grief — sometimes profound — at a great many other times in our lives, including some of the feelings that accompany the frequent occurrences of change in our professional and workplace worlds.

At work, the changes are often significant — a two company merger or a substantial reorganization –and sometimes they are quite small — the departure of a close colleague or having to exchange an office for a cubical.  The changes are often positive — a promotion or a coveted new assignment — and occasionally, one hopes, they are negative — an unwanted re-assignment or having to find another job.  Perhaps the changes will involve only a few individuals or they could involve an entire organization itself.

Whatever the magnitude, quality, or scope of the changes, for the individuals involved something will inevitably be lost, in addition to whatever we will gain.  And that loss must be acknowledged and dealt with effectively before we can fully appreciate and exploit anything new that is in the offering.  Dealing with that sense of loss is what Harry Levinson meant when he said “all loss must be mourned”.

For managers, a critical part of their job is dealing with the inevitable reaction of employees — the manager included — to changes, large and small, within their organizations.  While the case made in favor of a specific change is generally INTELLECTUAL, well-reasoned, logical, with emphasis on advantages and gains, the reaction to change is invariably heavily EMOTIONAL, and often fixated on what is being lost.  People simply need time to deal with loss; the classic cycle being various forms of shock, denial, anger, detachment/depression, bargaining, intellectual acceptance, and finally emotional adjustment.

For a manager to deny the existence of this reaction to change betrays ignorance.  To insist that everybody gets over their feelings in 48 hours is foolish.  To ignore people’s need to process, psychologically react to, and come to grips with the consequences of change, is simply disrespectful.  Of course as a manager you wish to get on with things as quickly as possible.  But the more substantial the change, the longer the likely adjustment process and there is little a manager can do to alter this fact.

The best managers, therefore, are those who openly acknowledge and embrace the human reality of how we confront change, acknowledge their own participation in the adjustment process, and partner with their fellow employees in working through the process.  By openly acknowledging what is being lost via the change, they gradually help others and themselves balance their outlook with consideration of the possibilities ahead.  By helping others undertake the  work the change will require, these managers are leading not just managing those around them.

But at what point is it time for everybody to move on?  Now here is a question I am often asked to which I wish I had some concrete, specific answer.  But like many things in management, the moment for”moving on” is more one of “feels right” rather than “now”.  The fact that not everybody moves through the adjustment process at the same speed further complicates the matter.

Nevertheless, eventually for the sake of an organization’s success, allowing resistance to a change to persist beyond reason is just as damaging as demanding an immediate attitude adjustment.  Thus as a manager, you will need to decide when you believe it is time for full implementation to begin.  In this regard remembering the following two things will help.

First, statistically speaking about 20% of individuals will embrace most changes rather quickly, while roughly 10% will resist until the cows come home.  So concentrate on the 70% in the middle for signs that they are prepared to move on.  Second, because the very best managers are those who have joined fully in the adjustment process, acknowledging openly what is being lost not just gained, their leadership provides powerful motivation for others to begin engaging the new reality to which they all must adjust.

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