A Pivotal Moment in Time

Have you ever lost something (or someone) that was very important to you? How did that make you feel? What was your mental state? How did you behave during that time?

Experiences like this are never pleasant to recall, but they are defining. Whether we like it or not, people change as a result of a significant loss. I know I have. The person I am today is largely shaped by the important losses I have experienced, both with people and other circumstances. I was a tenured consultant at Silicon Graphics in the 1990s when things started going wrong for the company. In 2001, after seven great years, I finally left. It was really sad for me. The people that I worked with were like my family. And this change was very tough for them as well. Not knowing day-to-day whether or not you will have a job tomorrow is extremely enervating.

I am not trying to insinuate that the emotional toll that an organizational transformation takes on a person rivals the grievance experienced through a significant loss of a loved one. However, any transformation has many facets — not only does the operating model of the organization transform, but each individual in the organization transforms as well. And the trauma associated with a major transformation sends people down an emotional journey similar to the grieving process explored by Elisabeth Kugler-Ross in the 1960’s. Your success in achieving the ultimate goals of your transformation is directly related to your efficacy in managing the emotions of your workforce as they navigate through this difficult time.

The Firings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

The emotional journey that your workforce traverses through a major transformation, is impactful and unavoidable. The moment someone is aware of an imminent shift in their professional experience, even if it is not certain, they will start processing the potential loss: loss of control, loss of status, loss of colleagues, or even the loss of their own job. And although this situation cannot compare to the loss of a loved one, it is still significant enough to inescapably send someone on a similar emotional journey. Nobody can choose to bypass it, even if they want to. It’s part of the human condition. And as a leader sponsoring a transformation, you will be dealing with this situation en masse.

Generally speaking, there are four stages each person visits as they deal with an impending and difficult situation: denial, resistance, exploration, and commitment. When someone becomes aware of the news, they typically ignore it — hoping the disturbing prospect goes away on its own. When they accept the news is real, they fight–taking an active role in making the threat disappear. Once they realize resistance is futile, ideally, they start exploring ways to make it work. And finally, once they experience a pattern of successes, they commit to the new future. Of course, there are nuances and critical crossroads (e.g., from resistance to exploration), but this is the general progression.

Properly managing this progression has more than just humanitarian consequences. As people progress from denial to resistance, morale and productivity drops. The most important thing for you as a leader to understand is that your organization’s performance will suffer while your workforce makes its way through resistance and even exploration (hard to have all pistons firing when you are experimenting with new methods). Again, this is not something you can avoid or control, but you can prepare. There are several ways to mitigate reduced levels of organizational performance as the workforce struggles through their emotional journey, but do not expect normal levels of performance without taking any measures. This is not even something your employees can control — it’s a human process — so don’t make the mistake of setting them, and yourself, up for failure.

Softening the Blow

Managing your workforce’s emotional journey starts with a good engagement and measurement strategy. You must have a good sense for where, along their emotional journey, the people in your organization are at any point in time. When I consulted for a major oil and gas company that went through a major transformation, one of the first things we set up was our strategy for collecting feedback: leadership engagement, focus groups, surveys, email, anonymous suggestion box, and coordination with the company’s in-house Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Then we set up a measurement system that included metrics to help us track the emotional progression of all the different organizational groups. You cannot manage what you cannot measure so it is important to set up a good foundation.

Collecting and analyzing employee feedback affords you the opportunity to manage your workforce’s emotional journey in the most efficacious manner. On the transformation effort mentioned above, we altered our change management approach, based on the insights we garnered from these analyses.

For groups that are in denial, it’s important to emphasize the case for change. People are in denial because they don’t believe the change is real. The more you emphasize the case for change, the more they realize the importance of why the transformation is necessary. This solidifies the reality of the change and eventually drives them into resistance.

Driving people into resistance may sound antithetical to your goal, but it is a natural and healthy progression from denial. Quite counterintuitively, it is a very good sign when morale and productivity start to drop because people are angry and frustrated at the reality they are internalizing. At this point, it is very important to listen, acknowledge their concerns, and partner with them on three things: addressing their issues, solving their problems, and exploring solutions.

At this point, you must have a concrete picture of what the intended future looks like and you must engage with your workforce to make it real. Engaging is not telling them how it is. Engaging is collaborating with them to overcome roadblocks to the desired state. Getting from resistance to exploration is the hardest part. Once you successfully navigate your way into exploration, it is just a matter of celebrating successes until the workforce is committed to the new future.

Happily, Ever After

Organizational transformation involves more than just adjustments to the operating model — each person involved will also be transformed, and each person will experience loss of some kind, and this will likely be a defining moment in their life. Don’t take this situation lightly. As the people in an organization collectively move through the inescapable emotional journey that is interwoven with the nature of the change, organizational performance inexorably suffers. Neither you nor your dedicated employees can avoid it — it is intrinsic to our human nature. The best thing you can do as a leader is accept this truth, prepare for what’s to come, and manage your workforce’s emotional journey as best you can.

I know you only have the best of intentions for your workers and that your desired state will bring everyone to a better place; however, your organization has a heart. Whether you like it or not, the emotional journey to the other side comes with a toll. John Donne, the 17th century poet, wrote, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. If you are implementing — or even contemplating — a major transformation, please take some time today to take your organization’s pulse. After all, their heart is yours.