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Negotiating Fear | The (Very Real) Emotions of Change Management

I LIVE for change.


I love when things move from one predictable thing to the unknown. Though it’s exciting for me, I understand not everyone feels the same way. In fact, most people experience just the opposite reaction.


Think of this for a second. You come home from a typical work day, and someone has rearranged your living room. Your rug is gone. The TV is in a new spot. There’s a different sofa. Everything is basically the same, yet everything is… altered.


And you can’t find the remote.


We work through this reaction with our clients all the time. A newly designed work environment is exciting, but what about all the things people come to depend on?


Workers often find creative solutions to negotiate issues with their physical space. “I like being away from the entrance because it’s always so noisy.” “I orient my desk away from the copy machine so my work doesn’t get interrupted.” Or “I hated my work chair so I brought one from home.” Workers feel ownership of their physical space, and rightly so. After all, it’s their home base for at least 1/3 of their day, five days a week.


These dependencies can include time-eating work-arounds. I recently heard of a team that would book a conference room on another floor, because it was the only one with a door that closed. The group trekked computers, cables, even a movable monitor into this room for a twenty minute set-up every time they had a meeting. Oy.


From proximity to the kitchen to giving up a favorite chair, changes to the workplace can come with legitimate anxiety. These reactions are complex, but I’ve distilled them into four interrelated response categories:

Status Quo | I don’t like change at all, let alone when someone changes things for me.


Autonomy | I set up my space this way for a reason. I want it the way I want it.


Anxiety | I’ve created a delicate method and now I’m worried. Will changes break my systems?


Distrust | I haven’t had any say in these changes. The last time we did this it was a disaster.

Ultimately, each of these are rooted in an understandable fear of what’s to come, and what it will mean for each individual’s success and happiness at work. Intellectually, we all get that.

What’s often missing is acknowledgment of the emotional component. In spite of all the home improvement shows we watch, few people actually enjoy a “ta-da!” moment in real life. They want, need and deserve to be part of the process of change in the workplace.


From restacks in an existing space to totally new buildings, there is a way to meet and beat these fears. Here are the four steps I coach leadership to take when changes are on the horizon:

Engage the Team | Bringing your team together before making changes is imperative. By convening the whole group, everyone affected will have the chance to discuss and understand why change is needed. Open the floor to the hard questions. They’re going to come up anyway, so better to field them yourself and nip rumors and story-making in the bud. And don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Coming in hard with all the answers isn’t really the goal. It’s about creating individual ownership (and thereby support) of the project.


Establish Mutual Purpose | Getting everyone to agree to every decision is not possible. However, getting broad buy-in on the need for change is. Creating a list as a group of three to five overarching goals (such as ‘Promote Collaboration,’ or ‘Support Individual Work Styles’) and posting it in high traffic areas will help remind people why changes are being made, even when things feel messy.


Share the Process | Periodic meetings and emails to tell the entire team where you are in the project, what’s new and what’s coming, will alleviate the anxiety of an ‘information vacuum.’ Share the progress and the challenges- being vulnerable demonstrates honesty and integrity, and underlines that you’re all in this together.


Review Results | The real success of any project is honest feedback. Once the project is done, and you’re moved in and functioning, host periodic voluntary forums. You can delegate department representatives to relay what’s working, what’s needed, and what needs review.

At burkeMICHAEL+, we host and lead change management programs as part of our services. If you think our team can help yours, let us know. Even if you’re already moved in, these discussions can still be valuable. Using change to create unity and build culture is one of the best reasons for evolution in the work place. Our help with this part of the process can move your team from ‘Why should we change?’ to ‘We needed to change.’


Creating a path to that collective mind shift is an excellent way for leaders to show teams what true cultural governance can be. It’s never too late to start.

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