If a change is as good as a rest, why do so many people fear it in their working life? The very mention of something different coming down the line can immobilise a workforce, usher in a chorus of sighs and eye rolling, or see the best talent heading for the door.

Yet in our personal lives, change is generally greeted positively, bringing with it new challenges and opportunities, including the potential for renewal or growth. The self-help bookshelves groan with titles telling us we should embrace or even seek out change. But something about the work environment transforms this sunny outlook into fear of marginalisation and the potential for jobs to disappear.

That’s a problem, because the concept of change underpins almost every incremental gain made in business. It defines how organisations and individuals respond to technological shifts, a changing competitive landscape or new ways of working. In emerging markets, dynamic economic and regulatory environments can drive the need for change more swiftly, whether it’s responding to a sudden shift in demand, complying with new laws or dealing with a surge in competition.

HR can often be the instigator of change – it usually implements restructures, handles redundancies and should be intrinsic in M&A transactions – but it is almost always the function that needs to handle the aftermath. Change affects people in fundamental ways, and handling their nuanced reactions to it means knowing what makes them tick.

“A lot of change is feared because it introduces an element of uncertainty, and with that comes self-doubt,” says Dr Lavina Ahuja, a counselling psychologist and consultant with LifeWorks, a Dubai-based personal development training centre. “People don’t like to be in a position where they don’t know what they will come up against, or whether they will be facing [unfamiliar] challenges they might not know how to cope with. We get into a place where we are comfortable and we want to stay there. When change comes along, it introduces uncertainty and doubt, and that’s what people fear.” Certainty is one of the five elements of the SCARF model devised by Dr David Rock – key psychological concepts that can either provoke threat or reward responses in individuals (status, autonomy, relatedness and fairness are the others).

Ahuja suggests that to get people to conquer fears on a personal level, change should be approached as a challenge. Challenges can represent an opportunity to develop and be seen as something people achieve by pushing their limits, rather than a negative. “Challenges bring about an opportunity to grow, as opposed to something that is just seen as an obstacle,” she says.

A sense of confidence is crucial in making this approach a success. Building this within employees takes thought, but being transparent about the nature of changes and giving people options are two key tools that will do the job. When change is presented in a transparent manner, it gives people a clear view of where they are heading, Ahuja explains. It avoids any feeling of being directionless and the sense of loss and confusion that can come with it.

Anything that helps people understand the changes, and the need and reasoning behind them, makes it easier for them to get behind the new thinking. But the practicalities of making this happen can be as challenging as the change itself. Finding a way to persuade people that change is necessary, and in their best interests, is essential.

“We want people to think, feel and do what we want them to think, feel and do,” says Brett Preston, executive strategy and leadership consultant with Biz Group. “That way, they’ll apply more discretionary effort, be more engaged and more persistent. If they think and feel, but don’t do, they will be paralysed.”

It’s that kind of paralysis that can strike change programmes, as the people affected by them become held in a grip of uncertainty and inaction. Preventing this comes down to clear and relentless communication. The messages have to keep being delivered to create a sense of urgency and to drive home the change programme’s business case.

“This really helps people get on board a lot faster,” says Preston. “But what it can’t be is a sense of urgency where it overwhelms and I drown in panic. In extreme cases of response to change, you get the flight response. It’s probably the most common, where people see their job is at risk.”

Potentially disastrous for a business, the flight response – triggered when the amygdala of the brain generates an emotional reaction before the neocortex kicks in with a rational one – may prompt what Preston calls the ‘high talent’ to head for the exit, while the ‘low talent’ will stay, as they find themselves with little alternative.

“All the blood drains from the front of the brain into the back, adrenalin kicks in and you literally can’t think for 20 minutes because you’re overwhelmed,” he says.

Delivering change successfully requires a delicate balance, for while it happens at an organisational level, it affects individuals and is influenced by the dynamics of small groups, broader organisational issues and the working environment. These factors make change one of the most complex undertakings in business, and it is one that is seemingly everywhere. Ubiquitous demands for fresh thinking, new approaches and altered habits can lead to change fatigue – where a workforce starts to ignore new requests simply because they have seen so many programmes fail before – or such a continual sense of change that it’s impossible to rouse interest because it’s never clear where one change ends and another begins.

“I’ve heard of many situations where a company will start something it believes to be a new change initiative, nothing happens and then it’s on to the next thing,” says Schon Beechler, senior affiliate professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at INSEAD. “There is a huge amount of fatigue overall. It’s really hard to get attention and get employees to take something seriously when there is so much coming at them, some of which is not well thought-out and some of which is absolutely critical to success. It’s hard for them to know which is which.”

Beechler says it is essential to know “where people’s heads are at”, as a failure to understand the individuals you are working with can derail a change process. This is especially true for top-level management. While they have had meetings and discussions outlining the details for months, frontline employees often know little about what is ahead.

“The critical thing is for [management] to go back to the mindset of someone who has never heard anything about it,” says Beechler. “If [employees] don’t know the rationale or environmental causes driving the changes, they don’t know the consequences of not changing. Many of these things don’t get communicated by senior leaders, because they have been through it all already, and they don’t articulate it well enough to those who are hearing it for the first time.”

Leaders have a responsibility to examine their own behaviour too. If it does not reflect the new situation, progress can be halted. People look up to see what those above them, in the positions they aspire to, are doing. If a visible sense of purpose can be tied to the long-term aspirations of the organisation, there is a better chance of people pursuing changes, rather than ignoring them.

“Make sure the reward system is aligned with the new behaviours you are looking for and that the leaders are modelling the behaviour,” says Beechler. “Those are the two things that will sink [change] quicker than anything else.”

Putting this into practice in the Middle East can bring up several challenges particular to the region. Its emerging market status means it is an environment where change is less about best practice and more about best fit. For Macro International, a facilities management firm with offices in the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, change has to be delivered to more than 25 nationalities, languages and cultures. It can come quickly too, often driven by client requirements, and delivering it at the same speed is a key challenge for Mark Graham, the company’s director of corporate services.

“Communication is key,” he says. “Although business is done in English, it is not everyone’s first language so this is sometimes an issue as many things can be lost in translation, including the tone and spirit of the message. Managing expectations is also key, as the rate of change can be very fast. The only way we are able to keep the pace is our ability to pivot quickly as a business.”

With a need to respond to fast-moving client demands, Graham describes change as ongoing and a constant part of the company’s operation. Although the way change is delivered may depend on its type, scope and depth, there are common factors across all of the company’s programmes.

“Broadly, employee engagement is key to how we manage change,” says Graham. “Communication and inclusion are central to our process. Employee motivation is very important to us as a business, and we know that even at the best of times people do not normally welcome change. We are also aware that imposing organisational changes without consultation and input from our staff could lead to a demotivated workforce, as well as greater resistance and potential failure.”

The business’s HR team is involved in any change that might affect its employees’ wellbeing. It adopts what Graham describes as a “collaborative and consultative” approach, usually including other parts of the organisation – such as finance, marketing and IT – in any large-scale change effort. Smaller, project-specific changes happen through the project team with a representative from Macro’s senior management involved too. While Graham says the company likes to keep its approach to change simple, he hits all of the points that psychologists suggest.

“We communicate a sense of urgency, as well as the benefits of the suggested change, and a vision of how it makes Macro better,” he says. “Then we break the change process down into smaller pieces or quick wins, and try to involve a representative from all groups affected to deliver the change.”

These cues will be familiar to anyone who has been through a change management programme elsewhere in the world, but the fact is there are some regional differences that go beyond the wide variety of cultural backgrounds that can be found here. Any change programme has to consider how these will play out when it is being designed and delivered.

“One of the things we found is that you have to make the ideas tangible,” says Marjola Rintjema, lead consultant for communication and change management at Willis Towers Watson. Rintjema was involved with a relocation project for a client in Bahrain. The business found it hard to appreciate the difference having a change management programme around the relocation would make: the solution was to undertake some role playing and experience a first day in a new location, where they didn’t know anything about their surroundings.

“They had to play it out and then we did the same scenario again, but this time we’d given them some information,” says Rintjema. “Things like role playing and making it tangible work very well.”

While the involvement of top management is important, Rintjema believes it is critical for businesses in the Middle East; because of the fairly hierarchical nature of regional organisations, people buy into change more quickly if it comes from the top. Leveraging personal relationships can also move change along, and Rintjema recommends you undertake stakeholder management around who knows who, and who can initiate critical conversations.

“You have to make sure your leaders fully understand why the change is important and ask them to support the change visibly and make it personal, so that people see the boss is really buying into this,” she says.

She cites the example of a client in Egypt going through a sensitive grading and salary structure change. The CEO decided to handle the communications himself, to allay any fears and reduce the chance of mistrust creeping in. He has gone through a series of town hall meetings and has been the face of the change, making himself directly available to employees to answer concerns as they arise.

“He is trusted and fairly new in his role,” says Rintjema. “People trust him because he’s a guy who walks around and knows many people and has been with the company a long time. Now that they are linking the change to him personally, there is suddenly much more credibility for this project.”

Rintjema also pushes for key stakeholders to be involved at an early stage, even when the natural inclination is to go to people with a finished plan. “That is usually not the right way because, like everywhere, people like to be involved,” she says. “They like to understand what is happening and they don’t want to be told one day in advance that everything is going to change.”

This can take a lot of persuasion, but changing work habits is no easier for senior leaders than for anyone else. Beginning a conversation about what needs to happen and what the objectives are is a good place to start. The alternative is to wait for change to be done to you – and we all know how that feels.

The four types of changing employee

Does everyone experience change in the same way? Brett Preston of Biz Group is adamant they don’t. His consultancy breaks people going through a change programme into four broad groups, as a simple way to look at how they may react to imminent change: resistors, bystanders, helpers and champions.

Champions are pro change and may have some type of subject matter expertise, so they should be involved at the highest level of contribution they can manage. In theory, their behaviour will be infectious and encourage others to get involved. Helpers will become bystanders if you don’t give them a support role, but if encouraged they can play a useful part.

“Management often makes the mistake of spending a lot of time with the resistors,” says Preston. “That’s probably the biggest mistake they can make. In order to move someone psychologically and behaviourally from overtly resisting to being a champion is never going to be easy. But moving the 60 per cent of people who are bystanders to helper positions will offer a higher chance of success.”

Preston says that once any consultation period is complete, he conducts focus groups before the actions of change get started. And that is the time to stop entertaining the resistors. “We’ve gone through all [the consultation], now is the time to start performance managing those people,” he says.

Change – one step at a time

  1. Create a strong change model. Know what you have to go through, follow clear steps and analyse who it will affect, and how. This helps create a line of sight to your goals and gets everyone on the same page.
  2. Design the change effort so that you can get some visible early wins. This is critical once the initial push has happened and energy around the change starts to drop off. People need to see meaningful progress in a short period of time – that is what will maintain momentum and energy.
  3. Understand what motivates your people, develop empathy and make sure the design of the change programme represents that. It’s easier to get people moving in the right direction if there is something in it for them too.
  4. Create a clear and consistent story to explain the change. People want to feel like their organisation knows what it is doing, and a clear message that is easily explained will help to build confidence.
  5. Align the reward system with the new behaviours you are looking for. There’s no point pushing for change if people’s old habits still find reward in their day-to-day work.
  6. Ensure top management is involved and buys in to the idea. Any large change simply won’t work unless they are on board. Many organisations fail here, especially when the change is driven by HR.
  7. Build capability and confidence to support the change. Timely training, plenty of time to practise and pilot programmes will all help better prepare people to execute the changes effectively.
  8. Listen. Change programmes can be daunting, and if people are losing their jobs it can be even harder.

Giving people the scope to vent and to share their worries helps takes the heat off and demonstrates caring.

Learn practical strategies to help your organisation manage change with the Organisational Development and Change (2nd edition) toolkit from the CIPD. Revised to reflect the complexities of change in a modern business environment, the toolkit covers themes including resilience, dealing with 24/7 change and the importance of understanding leadership capabilities and styles. For more information, visit bit.ly/CIPDtoolkit.

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