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Our Emotional Response to Change

During the pandemic a lot of organisations, teams and individuals had to make significant changes to the way they worked, linked to co-workers, worked from home, dealt with life at home, and operated home schooling etc.

During changes such as these, we all respond differently to adversity. It is important to remember we are all different and whilst some people may appear okay, there will be others who may feel or respond emotionally to the situation.

I am normally an upbeat, resilient and optimistic person, who is proactive in using my energy to control what I can control. During lockdown, I found myself feeling rather down, I had to remind myself that it is okay to not be okay 100% of the time. I thought of the work of John Kotter and Kubler Ross as I know their work and I often use Kotter theories in my change management and leadership workshops.

Even though I know these theories very well, I needed to remind myself of these, reflect upon what I was feeling and how I needed to acknowledge this, accept and ask myself what I could do to change my mood and feelings. In thinking about this, I also thought about all my clients, coachees, the leaders and managers who will be responding to their own and others' emotional reactions during such chaos and change.

I thought it would be useful to write this blog to remind myself and others of the theories, and how as managers and leaders we need to acknowledge that we all respond differently to change and to be aware that the teams we lead will need compassion, the time to ask questions about the current situation, to make sense of what it means for them, and psychological support from you.

You may also need to think about yourself, be kind to yourself, and practice self compassion as a leader or manager.

Kotter's theories talk about how change in uncertain times can change our vision of what the future means and the importance of reinstating what this vision is now and what the quick wins are, so that people can see progress.

For some staff, accepting that a vision of the future is changing can be challenging as an intellectual and emotional task. In chaos, our minds naturally generate dozens of questions. "What will this mean for me? My friends? my co-workers, the organisation? What other alternatives are there? Are any of the other options better If I’m going to have to operate differently can I do it?"

For some it is an exciting challenge to do something new or different. For others, change means losing old ways or colleagues, fear of job loss, or of the unknown. Each person’s view of the change depends on their perception of its impact. This may be influenced by many factors, such as:

The Kübler-Ross Model

We are reminded by Kübler-Ross that emotional responses to change are a normal reaction to real and perceived disturbance accompanying it. You can anticipate, acknowledge and respond to them. These emotional responses are described as the five stages of grief:

This model is widely used within organisations. It is valid in most change situations and can help you, and your colleagues or team to understand and deal effectively with team members’ emotional reaction to change, and to plan an appropriate response. Your team members may move through the stages in a random order - they may jump backward or repeat stages. It is important for you and the individuals to acknowledge that this is okay, they are normal reactions.

Some useful approaches to dealing with these emotional responses (albeit you will have tried and tested approaches that work for you) include:

  • Listen and affirm people’s feelings

  • Create hope for the future - vision

  • Encourage inclusion - reward those supporting the changes, support those who fear the changes

  • Keep up a sense of humour

  • Understand and acknowledge different views - put yourself in their shoes/show empathy and compassion

  • Work with those having positive enthusiasm - change champions

  • Build your network of supporters of the change - use opinion leaders to communicate benefits

Resistance to new ways of working and the current changes

Sometimes people resist change because of:

  • A short-sighted self-interest, rather than focusing on the bigger picture of what is happening.

  • Misunderstanding resulting from a lack of information or poor communication it is important to regularly connect with your team, daily connections and communication are crucial.

  • Low personal tolerance of change – need for security and routine. It is important to support yourself and individuals during the current changes that people have routine and rituals, having virtual meetings at the same time and day each week can help with this.

  • Their perception of the situation – people may disagree on the reasons for the changes, or its advantages/disadvantages, e.g. ways of remote working, reaffirm why this is happening/the opportunities/learning that can come from the new way of working can be useful

There are six different approaches for handling people’s resistance to change in different situations. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and as the manager and leader you need to consider what approaches are best for you and your team (Kotter and Schlesinger, 2008):

My reflections

This blog and reminder of the theories has helped me to understand that on the day on which I was lacking motivation, energy and couldn’t be bothered, that it was okay - I accepted that tomorrow was a different day, I would focus on my goals, practice self compassion and do some meditation using my headspace and I would be kind to myself. I would also write this blog and remind others who, like me, may need a refresh on the theories and how it links to the current situation. As leaders, we are people too and need to show our vulnerability so that light and dark are experienced simultaneously and be role models in adapting and navigating in changing times

Jackie Barringer

(please note the above is the work of Johnnie Byrne, based on Neff’s three steps for self compassion)
Campbell, H (2014). Managing Organisational Change: a practical toolkit for leaders Kogan Page, London, UK
Kotter, J. P (1966). ‘Leading Change’ Harvard Business School Press
Kotter, J., P. and Schlesinger, L., A (2008). Choosing Strategies for Change, Harvard Business Review
Kubler-Ross, E (2014). On Death & Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy & Their Own Families



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