How to thrive through major changes at work

Here’s your plan for emerging more successful on the other side

Welcome to How to Thrive at Work, a series by Creator and Thrive Global about how to enhance your productivity, well-being, and happiness in the workplace.

We’re told again and again that change is good—but when it comes to change at work, it doesn’t always feel that way.

Whether change is expected (a move to new office space) or a surprise (corporate merger), it’s easy to focus in on the potential negatives. You could get laid off, lose your five-minute commute, or suddenly find yourself uncomfortable at a job where you were quite comfortable. Having strong workplace connections can help see you through the change, but any stress is likely to affect all areas of your life.

Employees experiencing recent or current change were more than twice as likely to report chronic work stress compared with employees who reported no recent, current, or anticipated change (55 percent vs. 22 percent)—and more than four times as likely to report experiencing physical health symptoms at work (34 percent vs. 8 percent), according to results from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2017 Work and Well-Being Survey.

“Good change, bad change—we know from psychological research, it’s stressful no matter what,” says David Ballard, director of applied psychology for the APA. “Half of the U.S. workforce [has] been affected by change in the past year, and those who have were more than twice as likely to report day-to-day stress. They experienced physical symptoms at work including headaches, muscle stiffness, back and joint aches. They ate or smoked more during the workday than they typically did.”  

Sounds awful—and yet change is not only inevitable, it’s essential. It’s impossible to innovate, grow, and stay competitive without it. It’s worth making small tweaks to your daily habits to foster that growth. Because the employees who can ride out the change—thrive during it, really—are the ones who will emerge most successful.

Ready to meet that next challenge head-on, managing yourself, your team, or your entire company through anticipated or sudden change? These expert strategies will help everyone come out on the other side feeling included, energized, and ready for what comes next.

If you’re on the receiving end of change

Manage your own reaction. First, be honest with yourself about what you’re thinking and feeling. Panicked? Anxious? Acknowledge it, rather than bury it. Second, express those feelings to someone who will listen without judgment. “Often the process of expression will help us feel more understood and calm,” says Alan Wolfelt, founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, even if that other person isn’t “solving” anything. And third, after we have mourned our feelings about the losses of change (it’s healthy to grieve a comfortable job or convenient commute), we can work to find our best path forward by asking ourselves what the best outcomes of these changes.  

Get involved. Whether you’re the change leader or just the ride-along, engagement is a shared responsibility,  Ballard says. Employees are more likely to trust their employers during times of change when they feel involved in decision-making and when there is effective communication and transparency, he says.

And you don’t always have to wait to be asked. “Make your voice heard. Be part of decisions and activities, and be motivated and driven to participate in that process,” he says. “Raise issues when needed so concerns can be addressed.”

Find the silver linings. Once you know change is imminent—you can’t dodge it—start systematically looking for opportunities that might emerge because of it, advises John Kotter, author of Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions. “Emotionally our minds typically go to the hazards first because that’s just the way our brains are structured,” he says. “What we need to do is go beyond that and search for those opportunities, which, if we are smart, we can often exploit.”

Faced with an underqualified new boss? Picking up the slack will not only help you develop your skill set, it will earn loyalty from your manager. Dreading a company reorganization that will put you in a different department with new responsibilities? Think about the impressive new keywords you can add to your LinkedIn profile.

“Opportunities come along with challenges,” says Ballard. “If anything in life is ever going to get better, things have to change. When you can learn from change—even difficult change—and come out on other side not just having navigating and survived, but having developed new skills, you can apply those lessons in life to be more successful and happier.”

If you’re leading the change

Communicate your mission. Managers and workplace leaders have an extra responsibility to make sure workers adapt well to both surprise (a recession, for example) and anticipated change (like a merger or takeover), says Ballard. “If you want to function effectively as an organization, then as an employer, you need to create an environment where change isn’t going to wind up disrupting employees’ lives and end up hurting the business in the long run,” he says. “Even if you are changing in a positive direction, you want everyone aligned—because if you inadvertently wind up creating higher levels of stress and distrust, it can backfire on the changes you’re promoting.” It’s impossible to get your startup to pivot on a dime when half the team doesn’t understand why it’s even necessary—and how their roles will evolve.

You can’t over-broadcast the benefits that will come with change. Nectar Sleep founder Craig Schmeizer is leading his company through an office move, from WeWork 524 Broadway in New York City to a company facility that will be operated by WeWork. “There is some work around getting people to understand how great the space is, that it’s in a great area of town,” he says. “And there will also be follow-through as employees get in there, making sure energy level is high, hosting parties, gatherings, and highlighting new ways of using the space.”

Liz Welch, senior director of people operations at Sonos, which is a member at Seattle’s WeWork Holyoke Building, says there is a bias to share more, rather than less, information. “We are more likely to share information earlier and in a less complete state, simply because we believe people should know as early as possible about things that can affect them,” she says. “We’ll tell teams, ‘Here’s what I know, here’s what I don’t know, and here’s when you will know more.’”

Recognize that people react differently to change. Welch has found that people react to change on a continuum—and there is no right or wrong way. “There are people who have a great bounce, who adjust quickly,” she explains. “They’re innately excited about change and can quickly translate it into opportunity, innovation, and optimism.” And then there are those who like the status quo. “Many people get a sinking feeling in their stomach—that gut feeling that says, ‘I don’t know, this is kinda scary, I don’t really like it.’” In between? The rest of us. “Most people have some misgivings about almost any change, even if on the face of it’s a great one,” she says.

To navigate any change effectively, it’s not only important to know your own reaction to change, but also those of the people on your team. “Leaders who are architects of change need to be attentive to all the people along that continuum and not leave anyone behind,” she says.

Don’t dismiss those slower to adapt. “It’s easy for anyone to judge people who move more slowly toward the acceptance end of the continuum and think they look like whiners,” Welch says. “But those people bring tremendous strength that correlates to a strong dislike of ambiguity or change. They can be deeply convicted, they can be deeply loyal—both good things. You never want to lose people just because they took longer to adjust to change,” she says. “Better to adapt yourself as an organization around those people, rather than get them to hustle up or lose them.”

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