The Human Connection to Change: What's Logical Is Not Necessarily Psychological

With all of attention today focused on the new economy, unthethered connectivity, networked intelligence, disruptive technology and Web-based business models, there is a growing preoccupation with the task issues in our credit unions at the expense of people issues.


With all of attention today focused on the new economy, unthethered connectivity, networked intelligence, disruptive technology and Web-based business models, there is a growing preoccupation with the "task" issues in our credit unions at the expense of "people" issues.

Task issues are those duties and responsibilities that flow from the credit union's mission, and include developing and implementing business strategies related to financial management, market expansion and growth, product development, E-commerce and delivery solutions, and technology. People issues, in contrast, are driven by the credit union's values, and are related to the organization's culture, teams, change-management strategies, and empowerment and reward programs. As a measure of your own emphasis and orientation, take a look at your "To Do" list: How many items relate to "tasks"? How many relate to dealing with employee emotions and their reactions to change?

In light of this growing imbalance, we need to address the human side of change with at least the same effort we do the new business models and the task side of our business.

Change Definition
Change can be defined as any personal or business experience that requires a significant modification in the way an employee thinks, acts, interacts or performs. Consider all the changes taking place in your credit union. For example, change occurs when the pool of employees is expanding, the organization is being restructured, jobs and workflow are being redesigned, people are being moved among departments, technology is upgraded, a move is required to a new location, new reporting relationships are implement, broker/dealers are changed, and a dynamic sales culture is altered.

When people think of change in a credit union, they tend to think change as it relates to strategy, structure or technology. But the real issues about change are people issues, ones involving human reactions and emotions. Change is a complex process that requires employees to go through the emotional phase of transition.

The Human Change Model
In order to help employees effectively deal with change, we need to understand how change works. As described in the book Aftershock, there are three dimensions of the Human Change Model: Endings, Transitions, and Beginnings. When change occurs, something ends -- you leave a work team, you have a different reporting relationship, you change locations, you leave prior job responsibilities for new responsibilities. And change occurs, not just when something ends, but when something new or different starts - and the period in between the ending and the new beginning is called transition.

Here's the problem: although this progression, from endings to transitions to new beginnings, makes sense logically, it is seldom the way it happens in our credit unions. Instead we tend to jump from endings to new beginnings and neglect the emotional reactions of employees who are trying to make the transition. We like to start from where we want to be, not from where we are.

Thus we address change from the side of logic; we tell our employees things like, "We have to make these job design and workflow changes in order to be more efficient ..." Although employees may be in step with you intellectually, they may not have accepted the change emotionally.

There's a huge difference between an employee's intellectual understanding of a change situation and his or her emotional acceptance of it. Saying it another way: What's logical to employees isn't necessarily psychological! We have to address the emotional and psychological side of change among our employees, as well as the logical and intellectual aspects.

Emotional Reactions To Change
Typically, employees in a credit union have four basic emotional reactions to change: withdrawal, confusion, worry/sadness, and anger.

These are not abnormal reactions, but rather normal coping emotions and behaviors when change is introduced to the credit union. Even some of your best employees who are very positive about change, may temporarily experience one or more of these reactions. The problem comes when employees stay in these emotional states for any length of time.

Here are some typical behavioral descriptions that will help you spot employees who are experiencing one or more of these emotional reactions to change:

Withdrawal - is manifested by employees who traditionally have been very active, but once the change has occurred, seem to lose interest in what they're doing. They still put in their time, but don't have the drive and energy they once did. On the surface, these people may appear to be withdrawn and lethargic -- but on the inside, they are expending a phenomenal amount of energy on avoidance behavior.

Confusion - is demonstrated by employees who have lost sight of where they fit in with the organization. They often spend lots of time trying to determine what to do, instead of how to do it. Because they don't know what to do, they spend time on busywork instead of on the productive efforts.

Worry/Sadness - occurs because something or someone that employees identified with has been removed or changed. Employees identify with specific tasks, location, work team, or their position. And when one or more are changed or removed the employee may not only experience that loss, but also the loss of their own identity, with marked psychological effect.

Anger - is seen in employees who are critical of the credit union and the change effort, and who encourage other employees to be critical as well. They’re the leaders of other disgruntled people. The tend to relish and delight in the role of victim.

The descriptions of the four types of emotional reaction to change are not meant to represent a mutually exclusive and finite set of behaviors, rather a way to classify how change generally affects employees in the credit union.

It is important to be able to recognize the various emotional reactions to change, so that appropriate change management strategies can be introduced to help people move through the transition process and become healthy, satisfied and productive employees. If these emotional reactions are not addressed and they become chronic, organizations tend to experience increases in employee absenteeism and turnover, as well as decreases in employee job satisfaction and productivity. In Part II of this series on the Human Connection to Change, specific change management interventions corresponding to each change reaction will be described.

Tom Davis is president of Davis & Company, a management consulting firm specializing in strategic planning and change management strategies for credit unions and CUSOs. Tom can be reached at (303) 791-5141, Website: You can also read his opinions on the Consultants' Corner.




June 26, 2000



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