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Change Management & Stress

Posted Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Workplace change causes stress. Can organizational change managers use that stress to help employees acquire and adapt to new technology, processes and behaviors?

As organizational change managers, we try to acknowledge and address issues of change-induced stress. We explain to impacted employees resistance is a natural reaction and that everyone progresses through the change curvestressdifferently. We sympathize with employees about the loss of their work-based identities. We provide messaging to empathize with those experiencing disruptive change while painting a positive vision of the future state.

These are band aid solutions to a complex issue. Instead, let’s examine how people react to stress and explore some effective strategies for managing change-induced employee stress.

People react to stress in two different ways. The first is where employees acknowledge that change-induced stress is inevitable and the best way to cope is to accept and adapt to it – think of being in a state of “nervous energy”. This conscious acceptance and positive adaptation makes the brain secrete a hormonal steroid called DHEA. This steroid enables us to grow new motor neurons, enhancing memory and learning. Think of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger who, faced with certain catastrophe, drew on his memory and training to assess his options before safely landing his Airbus A320 on the Hudson River, saving all 155 passengers.

The second reaction to stress, where people feel overwhelmed by it, causes our brains to secrete cortisol. Cortisol, also a hormonal steroid, has almost the opposite effect as DHEA. It causes us to have cloudy thinking, impairing our ability to learn and inhibiting the retrieval of existing knowledge. One infamous example of this was the crash of Air Florida Flight 90, where the Boeing 737 failed to gain enough elevation before hitting the 14th Street Bridge, killing 4 of 5 aircrew, 70 of 74 passengers and 4 motorists on the bridge. A series of stressful circumstances – delays due to deicing, delays due to taxiing, impending incoming flights to the same runway- caused stressed pilots to miss vital procedures and ignore their training – resulting in disastrous consequences.

To create the right kind of stress for employees experiencing change, you need to create the following conditions:

1. Talk about the two different reaction to stress
2. Empower employees by inviting their participation in the change
3. Position your sponsor to provide messaging to employees that creates a sense of continuity, even amidst changing conditions
4. Have employees develop their own sense of purpose, consistent with the organizational vision, mission and values

Using stress as a positive change catalyst is just one way in which our change management approach differs from existing processes. Join Darwin, the evolution of change management.

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