Is Organizational Change Always Uncomfortable?

Most of us don’t like change.  We get established in our routines and change unsettles us.  But does this discomfort originate from us as people, or is it a product of the change itself? 

Three Canadian researchers* sought to answer this question.  They studied a group of healthcare workers faced with 3 types of changes – structural, relocation, and IT.   Their findings showed two different kinds of responses to change.  One they called ‘dispositional’ discomfort, which referred to people whose level of discomfort was stable, regardless of the type of change involved.  The other response they called ‘situational’ discomfort, referring to people whose level of discomfort varied according to the nature of the change.

Interestingly, they found that approximately one quarter of the study sample displayed dispositional discomfort, and three quarters showed situational discomfort.  In other words, in 25% of cases, the dislike of change seemed to be a function of the people themselves, and in 75% of cases the level of discomfort was unstable, depending on the kind of change and how it was handled.  Amongst these two groups there were variations in levels of discomfort, and although approximately 25% of people struggled with any kind of change, only 6.5% of the sample had very strong discomfort with any kind of change.

These statistics may or may not be similar in your organization, but it is very likely the two responses to change are represented.  Most people respond better to some changes than others, and some people respond negatively to all kinds of change.  If you’re a change leader, you have got something to be encouraged about here because you could expect three quarters of the people to be responsive to how you handle the change process.  If you handle it well, the change process will be less uncomfortable for them and your job will be easier.  If you handle it poorly, their levels of discomfort will rise and your job will become increasingly difficult.

What can you do about the 25% of people who don’t like any kind of change?  They could make life very unpalatable for a change leader.  Although only a small percentage of them are likely to be highly anxious about all change, it only takes a one or two negative people spreading fear to do serious damage and derail change attempts, particularly if those people are popular and influential.  This needs to be handled skillfully.

In closing I want to make three observations.  First, if you screen for change readiness when you recruit new staff, you will ultimately have fewer people with dispositional discomfort.  Second, if you are a change leader, identify where your readiness resources are, work with them, and make good decisions.  Third, make sure you don’t create unnecessary ‘blockages’ by promoting people with a dispositional dislike of change into places of strategic importance. 

Steve Barlow

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