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Why Is Change so Innately Stressful? (And How to Overcome It)

No matter our stage of life, our experience or our confidence, change can be a struggle. But why is this and how can we learn to embrace transformational change?

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We know change is healthy. We even know it’s inevitable and constant  — but that doesn’t make it any easier to experience. So few of us are fans of change. Even those of us who actively pursue change and understand its benefits sometimes struggle with a transition — this is entirely natural and normal. Whether we’re discussing chance in our private lives or our work lives, change can be stressful, emotional and difficult. 

Change and Human Evolution

As humans, our aversion to change — like so many other things — has its roots in our evolution. Back when life was a daily struggle, humans were surrounded by uncertainty and danger — which is why today we are programmed to detect subtle changes in our environment. This is what keeps us healthy and strong — and out of trouble. Thousands of years ago, our wariness of change was more tied to imminent attacks as a result of rustling in the undergrowth. Today, this wariness is more likely to be sparked by a new job or a cultural change — but our base reaction remains the same.

What instinctively goes through our minds when we face change? The first question — although you might not consciously be aware of it — is “With the resources I have, can I face this situation?” If we don’t have the resources, or we’re in doubt, we experience a physiological and psychological stress reaction. For some of us, this causes us to retreat. Others can become angry or actively resistant. The severity of our response is usually directly tied to the perceived threat or its effect on us or those around us.

When talking about workplace change, what do we consider “resources”? These encompass our training, our preparedness and our experience. To feel ready for change, we need a sense of control and we need a leader who appears certain, confident and prepared to navigate necessary change.

So how can we successfully navigate change, or lead others through it, when our instinct is to avoid or resist? To answer this, we have spoken with industry leaders in the finance sector — an industry that has, out of necessity, undergone huge cultural change since the recession to win back customer and employee trust. 

Our financial services report exploring transformational change revealed five key lessons that can help organisations navigate change, bringing their employees with them, rather than have them fight every step of the way.

1. Change Is Always Easier with Good Communication

People will always be reluctant to change and primed to resist it if they aren’t involved in the change and unprepared for it. An overriding message we learned from our financial services report is active communication and a willingness to listen is key to successful organisational change. 

Be prepared to listen, to take employee feedback on board and answer difficult questions. After all, if your organisational change can’t stand up to your employee’s scrutiny, perhaps it isn’t worth implementing. Maintain great levels of effective communication before the transformational change, during it and after it. Conduct employee surveys, hold on-to-ones and maintain an open-door policy to help employees feel involved, valued and ready for change.

“By making listening a regular habit it’s more likely people will feel listened to and valued, and part of the change. So as we navigate transformational cultural change across the industry, people who feel they have a voice are more likely to be ready to come with us than get left behind.”

— Sarah McPake, Senior Manager at TSB

2. Change Is Not a Single Event — It Is Continual and Happens over Time

People in general, are more likely to fear change if they perceive it as a big, momentous shift in what they know. It’s all about changing perceptions and integrating continual, gradual change and improvement into your company culture. Over time, your employees will begin to regard change positively. Help your employees understand the organisational culture is constantly in flux and change is not achieved through one single action or project. Positive change occurs through the culmination of many different actions taken. It happens over time and each employee plays his or her part in shaping the company.

“Much of what leaders have been taught about managing ‘change’ since the 1980s is no longer helpful. It assumes that stability is the norm and that changes can be managed as projects before returning to a steady state. But what if we recognise that constant change is the new normal?” 

— Nigel Girling, Director at the Babington Group

3. Change Happens for a Reason — Be Clear on What That Is

If you want your employees to be excited by a transition, get them involved as early as possible. Explain why the change is happening, what prompted it, the expected benefits (to the company and them) and how each employee will be needed to make the change a reality. Without this information, your employees will likely perceive the transition as “change for the sake of change”. They won’t take it seriously. 

If you invite and respect your employees’ opinion on the change, you will show them how integral they are to the organisation as a whole, making them feel more secure and more valued. 

“It is far easier for a business to succeed in its ongoing evolution when everyone on board has fully bought-in to the mission and that they have the positive approach necessary for embracing ongoing change.” 

— Peter Briffett, CEO & Co-Founder at Wagestream

4. Change Usually Entails Occasional “Failures”

For people to become more embracing and positive about change, they will need to perceive setbacks differently. When we don’t achieve something, we’re primed to react negatively. What companies need to do is provide an environment of psychological safety, where employees are encouraged to try new things. If they aren’t successful, that’s okay — a lesson is learned either way, and it’s better people are open with these lessons, so that they can share the benefits with others. This is an approach we have learned from agile working. 

Companies should be striving to fill their ranks with ambitious, innovative employees — not cautious ones who refuse to take a risk. This willingness to embrace what most people would regard as “failures” and instead regard them as “learning experiences” will help to create a culture embracing of change.

“Successful companies keep their best people by letting them learn from their experiences. They follow the mantra that if every single experiment is successful, then you haven’t been brave enough in what you’ve been testing. Fail fast.” 

— Susanne Chishti, CEO of Fintech Circle

5. Throughout Change, Remember What Needs to Be Preserved

Change is always going to happen. Your company will look very different in ten years time. This is a good thing — technology advances, attitudes change, new lessons are learned, and we adjust in light of these shifts. What’s important among all this change is that you keep a sense of who you are. For companies, this means holding to your core values. This consistency will provide employees with a sense of stability and certainty. 

What differentiates your organisation from so many others? What matters to you and your people? What are you trying to preserve? Consider these questions before you press ahead with any transformational change, so you can maintain your identity — having a firm grasp of your values will ensure you remain on the right course throughout change.

“Whenever culture change is discussed, people often focus on the aspects of culture which need to be changed. I believe it is also important to consider those aspects of your culture which you want to preserve.”

— Fiona Wallace Head of Organisational Effectiveness at Brewin Dolphin

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