Learn how to cope with workplace changes.
"He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery."
– Harold Wilson, British politician
How much change have you experienced in the last year?
Perhaps you've had to learn a complicated new software system. You may have taken on new team members, or a new role. Or you might have gone through a merger or an acquisition.
Change is routine in today's workplace. And, no matter what you do, you probably can't – or shouldn't – try to stop it.
However, you can choose how you react to it.
If you can embrace and cope with change, you'll be valued highly in your organization. You'll be seen as a flexible and adaptable team player, and this reputation can open up many opportunities. If, however, you consistently resist change, you'll be seen as "part of the problem," and you'll get left behind.
In this article, we'll look at why coping with change is so important, and we'll discuss a framework that you can use to deal with it more effectively.
So, what is coping? One formal definition says that it's a "process by which an individual attempts to minimize the negative emotions that arise from the experience of negative events." Another defines coping as "cognitive and behavioral efforts to deal with experiences that tax or exceed one's resources."
Put simply, coping describes the way that we think about and deal with stressful events.
Importantly, it's often your attitude towards change that determines your emotions and your experience of it. Some people view change positively, and see it as an exciting opportunity to learn and grow. Others see change negatively, as something to fear and to avoid.
It's important to know how to cope with change, because there's so much of it about. Organizations are continuously shifting, growing, downsizing, merging, and acquiring people and resources. Developments in technology mean that we need to learn new ways of working and communicating. We also need to know how to cope with smaller changes, such as getting to know a new team member, or learning new standards in a particular industry.
People who resist change will likely find themselves overlooked for important projects, passed over for promotions, or left behind entirely. The inability to cope with change can also lead to great stress, and other negative physical and psychological effects.
Change can bring amazing opportunities, or it can bring defeat. It can lift an entire team up, or it can lead people to find other employment.
Researchers Mel Fugate, Angelo J. Kinicki, and Gregory E. Prussia argue that there are two major types of coping strategies: "control coping" and "escape coping."
"Control coping" is positive and proactive. You refuse to feel like a victim of change, instead you take charge and do whatever you can to be part of the solution, including managing your feelings.
"Escape coping" is based on avoidance. You experience thoughts and emotions, or take specific actions, that help you avoid the difficulties of change. For instance, you might deliberately miss training classes, or show up too late to attend a meeting about the upcoming change.
People can use both strategies simultaneously when coping with change. However, as you can imagine, control coping is the best option to choose, because it puts you in a position of positive control. Here, you proactively search for a way to be a part of the solution, instead of reacting to, and avoiding, the change.
So, how can you put yourself in control?
Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman give us a useful way of doing this with their "Transactional Model of Stress and Coping". You can use this simple approach to look objectively at the change situation you're experiencing, and analyze what you can do to respond to it effectively.
There are three stages in this model:
Let's look at each of these stages in greater detail, and think about how this can help you deal with change.
In your primary appraisal, you evaluate the event and its significance to you, your unique situation, and your sense of well-being. You're answering the question "Is this change going to affect you in a positive or a negative way?"
A major part of coping with change is deciding whether the change represents a threat: at this initial stage, you might not be sure what risks or opportunities this change poses for you. Conduct a SWOT Analysis to identify the possible threats and opportunities that you will face or experience. Next, conduct a Risk Analysis to get a better sense of the risks that you might experience in this situation.
It can also be helpful to conduct an Impact Analysis to identify the positive and negative consequences of the change you're facing. Does it threaten your expert status or your job, or is the impact smaller? Or will this change make your work easier or enhance your skills? You'll feel more in control and informed when you know both the positive and negative consequences, and this will also guide your actions in the next step.
It can often be useful to talk informally about what you're feeling – remember that it usually helps to have social support in these situations. It's also important to manage your emotions. Try not to take negative feelings out on others, and use techniques like thought awareness to keep control of your emotions.
And keep in mind that not all change is bad – often, it can be a very good thing! Try to get excited about what's coming.
Once you've determined how this change is going to affect you and your well-being, you can then go through a second appraisal.
In this assessment, you think about how you can control what's happening by asking, "What can I do about this situation?" You also begin to look at the resources you have available for coping with this change, and you start thinking about whether these are sufficient.
Next, make a list of things that might help you through this change. Which of your current skills will help you to succeed? Do you have a skill or knowledge gap that might hinder your ability to navigate this change? And do you need additional training?
Also, do your best to find out more about this change. Be proactive, ask for news and updates, and make sure that you share what you learn with your colleagues. This will help them feel informed and comfortable, but might also prevent the spread of rumors, which can lower morale and engagement.
Your coping efforts determine how well you handle the situation. This is where control coping and escape coping strategies often come into play.
It's important to avoid common escape coping strategies, like drinking too much alcohol, lashing out emotionally, and other negative behaviors. Instead, focus on control coping, and think about how you can take control of this situation and create a positive outcome for yourself and for the people around you.
Next, keep up-to-date with what your colleagues are going through. If this change affects them as well, ask them how they're coping. Often, reaching out and trying to help others can also help you cope more effectively. Our article on coaching through change has many strategies that you can use to help your colleagues and team members cope.
Remember to take time for yourself. If you're going through a major organizational change such as a promotion, takeover, or acquisition, you might feel pressured to work longer hours, especially if your job is at risk. This is often appropriate, however, it's essential to take time out during the day to eat healthy foods, get some exercise, and de-stress; and it's also important to remember to relax after a hard day's work.
Last, try to maintain a positive outlook about the situation. Even if a change seems negative at first, there's often a positive outcome if you take the time to find it. Only you can decide whether you'll grow from the situation, or let it affect you negatively.
In today's workplace, change occurs regularly. These changes can be small or large, and knowing how to cope with them effectively is essential to your career, as well as for your health and well-being.
Lazarus and Folkman's Transactional Model of Stress and Coping provides a useful framework for appraising your situation, and for coping with the anticipated outcome. It outlines three stages of coping:
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Lowe, R. and Bennett, P. (2003) Exploring Coping Reactions to Work-Stress: Application of an Appraisal Theory. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. September 2003. (Available here.)
Fugate, M., Kinicki, A.J. and Prussia, G.E. (2008) Employee Coping with Organizational Change: An Examination of Alternative Theoretical Perspectives and Models. Personnel Psychology. April 2008. (Available here.)
Fugate, M., Kinicki, A.J. and Schenk, C.L. (2002) Coping with an Organizational Merger Over Four Stages, Personnel Psychology. January 2002. (Available here.)