15 key factors in employees’ response to change

Individual and universal elements play a significant part in workers’ adjustments when an organization relocates, makes staffing moves or imposes new protocols.

In business, change is inevitable.

Consider these 15 factors that determine how well your employees will—or won’t—adapt to new processes, workflows and other aspects of workplace life:

1. Control

The amount of input and influence the employee has around the change, goals, processes, and outcomes .

Research on stress shows that the degree of control a person has in a challenging or unpleasant situation is the No. 1 factor influencing their stress level. The more control an employee has in any situation, the more challenge and uncertainty he or she can handle without stressing out.

2. Predictability

The degree to which the person knows what will happen next in a change process or what the effect of a particular decision or action will be.

In difficult times, if employees know what will happen next, it creates what psychologists call “perceived control.” Even if they don’t have true control over what happens next, knowing what will happen creates confidence, as opposed to the helplessness of uncertainty.

3. Clarity

The degree of clarity around organizational and departmental goals, possible scenarios, current states of affairs, employees’ future roles, and repercussions and mechanics of the change.

For those unpredictable aspects of change, having clarity about what is known helps employees feel a sense of perceived control.

4. Understanding

How well employees understand the reasoning behind the change.

To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, “Employees can handle just about any ‘what’ if they understand the ‘why.'” Humans have an innate drive to make sense of what is happening to them. Understanding the reason for a difficult situation helps create perceived control. When we don’t understand why something is happening, we feel helpless and anxious.

5. Meaning

How employees explain to themselves what the change means in terms of their leaders’ character and their leaders’ attitudes toward employees.

“Our big layoff was something our leaders had to do, and they did everything they could to avoid it,” would be one way employees could explain the event. They also could feel this way: “The leadership team couldn’t care less about us and see us as expendable. That’s why they immediately went for big layoffs as the solution.” These disparate explanations would result in different emotional reactions and, therefore, varying stress levels.

6. Timeframe

The time lapse between when change is announced and when it takes place.

The less time people have to prepare themselves for change, whether tactically or emotionally, the more stressed out they will become.

7. Degree of change previously experienced

The stability employees have enjoyed versus the changes they’ve been put through.

If employees are used to very little change in their work life, a major change will obviously be far more traumatic than it will to employees who are accustomed to change. Conversely, if they’ve experienced a great deal of disruptive change just prior to a new initiative, their capacity for handling more change will be diminished.

8. Organizational climate

The overall mood and emotional ambience of the organization, and the degree of goodwill between employees and management.

The more positive the emotional climate, the more resilient the workforce and the less stress employees will feel during challenging times.

9. Relationship with supervisor

The level of trust, respect and goodwill that employees feel toward their supervisor, and how open they feel they can be with their supervisor.

The more open and trusting this relationship, the more likely that employees will seek the information they need, voice their concerns and feel heard—all factors that reduce stress and build resilience.

10. Organizational relationships

The level of camaraderie among employees, as well as the norms regarding openness and authenticity.

Good relationships mitigate stress and its effects. The stronger the relationships in the organization, the more resilient the workforce. When people feel that others “have their back,” they can handle much greater adversity than those who feel they must go it alone.

11. Personal relationships

The quality of the employee’s family and social network and the amount of support one can count on from their network.

Good relationships buffer people from stress; bad relationships heighten it. Thus, employees’ personal relationships help determine their ability to handle challenging times at work.

12. The ability/opportunity to ‘work through’ one’s response

Employees’ ability to discuss their thoughts and feelings about the change to the point where they can move on to the next step.

This refers both to the employee’s individual skill level and comfort with discussing difficult issues, as well as how Nos. 8–11 affect their opportunity to do so.

13. Current stress load

How much stress an employee is experiencing from work and his or her personal life.

Every employee has a finite capacity for handling stress.

14. Self-efficacy

Employees’ perception of how well they can meet the imminent challenges and new requirements.

The greater a person’s self-efficacy, the more they have a “Bring it on; I can handle it,” response to change.

15. Resilience

The employee’s overall capacity for dealing with stress, pressure and change.

Resilience is our ability to “not sweat the small stuff,” perform well in demanding situations without getting stressed out, bounce back from adversity, and respond flexibly to change. With greater resilience comes an increased ability to handle change, challenge and uncertainty.

David Lee is the founder of HumanNature@Work. A version of this post first appeared on TLNT.


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