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Understanding the Psychology Behind Employees’ Reactions to Change

Employees’ responses to organizational change can range from fear and panic to enthusiastic support. Understanding why people respond to change so differently can help managers and supervisors design an appropriate change strategy. The following are some of the factors that influence a person’s response to change:

  1. Family upbringing
    Our attitudes about change are partly determined by the way our families reacted to change during our early years. People who live in the same house, attend the same church, shop at the same stores, and drive the same routes daily throughout their formative years may have more difficulty dealing with change than people who grow up in several different neighborhoods. In the same vein, those who become accustomed to associating with people with the same values and ethics may find it more difficult to appreciate the diversity of today’s work force. An employee who was raised in a family that viewed change as a challenge to be tackled will probably have a more optimistic outlook about change than a person who was raised in a home that considered change an unwanted evil that upset the predictable family routine.

  2. Past successes and failures
    To a great extent, the ways in which we have experienced changes in the past determines how we view the change process in the future. If our past experiences during times of change have been mostly positive, we will have a more optimistic outlook about the change process. But if we have experienced failure during periods of change, those failures may color our outlook about future changes.

  3. Mental outlook
    People with high self-esteem and self-confidence are better equipped to deal with changes in both their personal and organizational life. They can see the change process from a broad perspective. They have confidence, not only in themselves, but in the leadership above them. Self-confident people have an understanding of their part in the change process and see the value of dealing with change positively. This positive mental outlook enables them to consider the possibility that the change process might even provide greater opportunities for them and enhance their personal and career growth. Insecure people, on the other hand, just see the change process as threatening.

  4. Communication
    The way in which the change process is communicated to people within the organization is a critical factor in determining their reactions. When upper management plans and communicates effectively with all employees and explains the reasoning behind the change, employees are much more likely to buy into it. Changes that are mandated with little communication, on the other hand, are often poorly received, since employees may feel that the change is being “shoved down their throats.”

  5. Ability to control the situation
    People are more likely to understand and implement changes when they feel they have some control. Keeping the doors of communication open and soliciting input from employees lets them know that their contributions matter. This, in turn, helps give them a sense of control during periods of change.

  6. Job satisfaction
    The satisfaction that employees have with their job determines a portion of their reactions during times of change. Employees who experience a high degree of job satisfaction are better able to weather periods of change. They are more positive in their approach to their work and can see change as an organizational necessity. Unhappy employees, on the other hand, view change as just another annoyance in a long list of complaints. Chances are, whatever the change, disgruntled employees will view it as having a negative impact on both the organization and them personally.

  7. Level of trust
    In organizations where there is a high degree of trust and each individual employee is treated with respect and dignity, there is less resistance to change. In organizational environments where there is a high degree of distrust, change is viewed as just one more of management’s tricks. In such organizations, change will be resisted, not because employees find it unwarranted, but simply because they mistrust everything management does. In these cases, employees see the necessity of change but they don’t trust the change agents.

  8. Age and values
    Reactions to change are also partly determined by age and values. Generally, but not always, people tend to become more resistant to change as they age. The older they get, the more comfortable they are when operating within known parameters and predictable routines. Values also play a big role. People who place a high value on stability, the status quo and control over their environment may be more resistant to change than those who value risk-taking and exploration, and get excited about the unknown.

  9. Timing
    Timing also has a significant impact. If a change occurs at a time when an employee is feeling financially secure, he or she may view the change positively. However, if the same change occurs during a time of financial insecurity, the employee may see it negatively. How fast an employee receives word of the change also affects the response. If a change has been thoroughly communicated within the organization over a long period, the employee may more readily accept the change. However, an employee who is suddenly confronted with change may be resistant and even try to sabotage the change process.

Keep these 9 factors in mind when your organization is facing changes and you will help make the change process easier for your employees, and yourself.

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