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"Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity."

Charles Mingus

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On a recent trip to Papua New Guinea, I had a really embarrassing experience. One morning a young PNG woman came to the office with her hair beautifully braided. It looked lovely and I told her so. I even asked her where she'd had it done. Can you imagine how I felt when I discovered that the young woman's child had just died and she was wearing her hair in braids as a symbol of profound grief and mourning.

How often do we make false assumptions about other people based on our own culture and experiences? And even more importantly, how often do we fail to recognise and understand how individuals deal with grief and change in their personal lives or at work.

When organizations go through change, for example a restructure, a merger, downsizing, the installation of new information technology, outsourcing, a shift to customer focus or a new location - many employees experience a sense of loss. This is obvious if it means losing a job. Yet often the reasons for the sense of loss are not clear but the effects may be just as profound - both for the individual and on the organization's bottom line.

Imagine working with the same people for a number of years. Without warning, their roles, but not yours, are outsourced. Or your team is disbanded and you find yourself in a new department and location.

For some of us, still having a job would be a relief and we may even be excited about the future. But the impact of unexpected and unwanted changes like these varies from person to person and is often mixed.

What we know is that most people go through four emotional changes when they experience a major shock. Test these stages against how you experienced a major change e.g. the death of a family member or friend; a divorce; the loss of your job; a major change at work; a confronting medical procedure.

1. Disbelief and denial

Initially the change is met with disbelief and denial. "It won't happen to me." "No, they won't close the plant - they'll find a way through the problems, they always have." "If I just keep my head down, it's be business as usual soon."

2. Anger and blame

Next, it is common to see anger and blame. In workplace change at this time some employees will actively resist the changes saying things like: "Why should I change? Is this how they treat us after we've worked our butts off?"

What is more risky is withdrawal and lack of concentration. In this high risk period, watch out for an increase in accidents, drop off in quality, absenteeism, corruption or fraud.

3. Reluctant Acceptance

As people work through their anger, they move to the third stage where they reluctantly begin to accept the changes and start to explore their role in it. You'll hear things like: "There's just too much to do now - how am I going to get it all done?" "OK let's try it but who's doing what now?" " I'll never learn this new system - I need training."

4. The final stage

When employees commit to the change, they start focussing on the future instead of dwelling on the past. They have a clear sense of their roles and where they are going.

What are the implications of these emotions when we are planning and implementing organizational change?

1. During Denial

Do everything you can to minimize the shock. Plan ahead. Give them plenty of information - let them know what the changes will be, who will be affected by them and how. Give them your best estimate of the likely timeframe - remembering that these things always take longer than originally planned.. Give them chance to prepare themselves and let the changes sink in. You cannot over-communicate now.

2. During Resistance

Listen to what people have to say. Empathize. Don't tell them to snap out of it or pull themselves together. People don't want your solutions, they just want their responses and reactions acknowledged. Denying their feelings will only drive the resistance deeper and make it last longer.

3. During Exploration

Now people need practical encouragement and support. Provide training. Involve them in planning and setting goals. Focus on some short term wins to get early runs on the board -show the benefit of the changes. People will respond well if they can see the positive impact of the change.

Watch out if the changes do not provide any immediate observable benefit. Then there is a real likelihood that people will sink back into resistance and may even undermine your change strategy completely.

4. During Commitment

Now that you are through the transition, set about consolidating the change. Implement an appropriate cultural change program. Recognise and reward people who are responding well to the change. Be careful to not inadvertently reward any behaviour that is inconsistent with what you're aiming for.

People move through the emotional stages of change at different rates. That's why these transitions can be hard and counter-productive. Sometimes it is impossible to tell people too much ahead of the change because of market forces. But if people are in denial, or are angry or resistant, productivity will be low. You might see a short term spike in response to the change but it is likely to be short lived until these stages are worked through.

Design and plan your change management strategy to recognise and support the transition phase. Do this and you will reduce the impact of the inevitable drop in productivity. More importantly you will gain the on-going commitment of your people.

With over 25 years hands-on change management and leadership experience, Anne Riches is an expert in the field of people-issues in organizations. Anne specialises in strategies for managing and implementing sustainable organizational change capabilities and developing leadership qualities in executives, managers and team leaders. Read about the credentials and experience of Anne and The Riches Group.