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Valerie Nichols

Hemsley Fraser

Executive Consultant

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How can HR support managers in helping their teams support change?


In the second of two articles on change, Valerie Nichols explains how HR practitioners can support managers in helping their teams to ride the waves of change and avoid a wipe out. Read the first article on handling resistance to change.

Any manager in your organisation who is trying to implement change will probably have access to a great deal of information, detailing the steps they need to take, the support they need to enlist, and the resistance they need to anticipate and mitigate. However, employees who are coping with the resultant changes will often be left to their own devices.

Coping with change = surfing the waves

It’s sometimes helpful to think about coping with change in terms of surfing waves at the beach since there are a number of similarities. When you’re surfing, you’ll paddle out to deep water and wait, often for some time, during which small waves will roll under you. Think of this as the usual work environment: you’re likely to be doing the same, or at least similar, work from day to day in what is probably a fairly comfortable routine. All of a sudden, that one big wave of change will appear. It may be a reorganisation, a new work assignment, a new boss, or even a merger or acquisition. You’ll start paddling like mad, trying to match the speed of the wave. If you misjudge the wave, you’ll either be left behind – watching the other surfers ride away from you – or you’ll be caught as the wave breaks and will, as they say, wipe out. That can be a painful experience. 

So, what can HR do to help individual employees to hone their surfing skills? Three things:

First, be aware that everyone has a different capacity to cope with change. Employees should be encouraged to consider their own situation. Do they value knowing all of the details about existing processes? Do they enjoy being the ‘go to’ person when someone has a question about the history behind those processes? Are they happiest when things are orderly and predictable? In that case, they may be less comfortable with change than someone who is more easily bored with routine and who is excited by the adrenaline rush of upheaval. If someone is less comfortable with change, don’t make matters worse by making them feel that this reaction is somehow ‘wrong’.

Second, help employees to understand that stress is cumulative and that their ability to cope with change may be impacted by non-work-related stressors. If there are other stressors occurring in their personal or work life, the cumulative effect can result in a high level of stress overall. If, for example, they’re dealing with an angry teenager at home, a member of their family has recently passed away or they’re trying to refinance their mortgage, their resilience and ability to cope with change will be impaired. 

Some of these ‘stressors’ may have positive outcomes (for example, their mortgage might be reduced), but the stress associated with effecting the change will still be there. Help employees to raise awareness of their personal stress level by thinking about the context of their life.

Third, now that they have an idea about their personal level of stress, give them the following advice to reduce it:

  • Become aware of how you carry tension in your body (stomach cramps, tight shoulders, headache, etc.). When you see/experience one of those symptoms, stop what you’re doing and take a few deep breaths. It’s pretty much impossible to keep the same level of tension when you do that.
  • Try to find time for physical exercise, which is a major stress reducer. Try also to find activities that bring you pleasure and make time for them.
  • To help manage work-related stress, write down at least 10 things you LIKE about your job. Then go back and put a ‘P’ next to the people-related things, an ‘S’ next to those that are related to your own skills, and a ‘J’ next to those that are directly related to the job. Now take a look at the list – does one letter dominate? Is one absent? Try to build balance, if you can.
  • Stop worrying about what you cannot control – focus your attention on something you CAN control. If, for example, your primary level of stress comes from a reorganisation, which you cannot control, ask yourself what impact you can have. Can you volunteer to participate on a committee to manage communication about the reorganisation or can you take a course that will build the skills needed in the new organisation?
  • If your reaction to some of the previous suggestions is, “Great, another thing to have to cope with!”, become adept at emotional intelligence. Manage your emotions to remain optimistic, retain your sense of humour, and take responsibility for your own actions and feelings. When you find yourself – whether alone or with peers – talking negatively about whatever is going on, try to shift gears to look for something positive.

When anyone first learns to surf, they spend a lot of time falling off the board. They may think they’ll never master the skill. But if they stick at it, they’ll usually find their balance. Then they’ll experience the sense of accomplishment and exhilaration that comes from riding the waves. Exactly the same is true when you’re riding the waves of change.

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Valerie Nichols

Executive Consultant

Read more from Valerie Nichols

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