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Smooth Transitions | Adjusting to Organizational Changes

Amy Bergen

woman at desk with yellow flowers

Adaptation to change is a long-haul endeavor, and change of any magnitude might result in confusion and resistance. But once we’ve made it through the change, how do we navigate the longer-term transition? 

Author William Bridges distinguishes between a change and a transition in the workplace: while the actual change may happen easily, the transition involves everyone reorienting themselves to, and accepting, the "new normal." Completing the transition can take much longer than the change itself. And whether or not you’re in a management role, you can help the transition process flow more smoothly.

Communicate clearly

Timely, honest communication is rule number one (no surprise there!). People like to know what’s going on, and when they sense someone is withholding important information, they may feel skeptical—or worse, turn to misinformation through the rumor mill.

If you’re in charge of telling people about organizational changes, deliver the news as soon as you can, preferably before any actual change takes place, and in a way that lets everyone hear it at once. 

This may feel intimidating, especially if you don’t yet know all the facts yourself! If you’re delivering the message to different people at different times, keep the overall story as consistent as possible so you don’t have conflicting versions of the same news floating around. 

To keep your statements simple, write down three talking points—what the change will be, when it will happen, and what employees need to do—and prepare to return to these points as needed. If employees don’t have to take any action, make that clear as well. People are more likely to remember a short, uncomplicated message. 

Key points

Once everyone knows the basics, you’ll want to discuss the broader impact of the changes:

  • What will look different? What will stay the same?
  • What’s the timeline for the proposed changes? Will they roll out in phases or all at once?
  • What actions (if any) do employees need to take, and when? How will their responsibilities be affected?
  • Who will communicate important updates, and how?
  • Is this information confidential to employees, or can it be shared outside the organization?

Be transparent about what you can confirm and what you don’t know yet. Phrases like "I’m telling you what I know today, the details may change tomorrow (or next week, etc.)," and "We’re still waiting on details, but this is the information I have right now" can keep people informed while emphasizing the need for flexibility. 

Steer clear of blaming anyone or implying anyone is at fault, especially if the transition is unpopular. You may want to avoid using any names at all; for instance, if a policy change comes as a result of employee complaints, don’t reveal the identities of anyone who spoke up. 

Just as importantly, invite employees to ask any questions they have, whether or not you can answer them at the moment. You might have to say—or hear—"I don’t have the answer to that right now, but I’ll update you when I do,” or “This is a possibility, not a certainty,” or even “We’ll all figure that out together.” 

And remind people about the changes as often as necessary. It often takes a while for new guidelines and procedures to really sink in.

Acknowledge emotions

Positive and negative transitions each come with their own kind of anxiety. You might be more emotional than you expected, especially if the adjustment affects you on a day-to-day level—maybe you’re losing a valuable supervisor or facing a cutback in hours. And if a lot of important details are still up in the air, the "unknown" factor may be a major stressor

If you’re in a management role, expect employees to be anxious. As an employee you might feel a loss of control, or feel pressured to accept the changes whether or not you agree with them.

One important step you can take, if you’re the messenger, is to avoid insincere optimism about any events or outcomes your employees might not welcome. This isn’t the time to put a positive spin on difficult financial circumstances or increased workloads. Instead, acknowledge the challenges ahead for individuals and the organization. You can still encourage resilience and cooperation and point to positive changes planned for the future.

The more honest you are about the impact of a big transition, the more employees feel comfortable discussing their own concerns. If you can, meet one-on-one with colleagues to learn what they think about the new order of business. Listen to what they’re saying, even if you can’t accommodate their requests.

Employees, likewise, should be upfront with supervisors about any doubts they have. First, be honest with yourself; acknowledge your emotions and recognize that they’re valid. Try writing down your fears and lingering questions.

You may not be able to prevent or control the proposed changes (your boss might not have that power either). But you don’t want to simmer in private resentment at work or complain to co-workers constantly. It’s better for everyone if you respectfully voice your questions to your supervisor or the "point person" for the transition—or to the human resources department, since they’re experts at dealing with sensitive, confidential conversations.

Understand the purpose of the transition

For most people the "how" of major changes is the biggest question mark; you want to know how your job will be affected and what the logistics will look like. But the "why" is an important part of the picture too.

Supervisors should communicate a clear reason for the change: why it’s happening at all, and why it’s happening now. Predictability and familiarity go a long way, so people may be more willing to accept a new routine if it’s connected to the same organizational mission, guidelines, and intentions they already believe in.

Often transitions are related to broader organizational goals—such as serving more clients, building a more diverse staff and board, or preparing for an ambitious new direction. If a change is in response to an unwelcome circumstance (like dwindling funds) it’s still a chance for people in the organization to come together and re-imagine how to get the job done.

Keep an open mind as the "new normal" rolls out

Individuals have to be on board for organizational change to take hold, and not everyone will adapt at the same pace. In the meantime, there’s a lot you can do to keep things running.

  • A longer step-by-step rollout, if that’s feasible, will usually be easier to accept than a series of sweeping changes all at once. It also gives you time to see what’s working and what isn’t.
  • Define how you’re going to measure success in the transition. Create benchmarks for the first week, the first three months, six months, etc., and be willing to revise as you go. People who initially resisted the change might rethink their stance if they see positive results. 
  • Be patient; it takes a while for people to adjust to anything new, and it’s normal for productivity to drop a bit. Prepare yourself to make mistakes, and to ask (and answer) the same questions over and over if necessary.

Change is inevitable, and the best organizations go through transitions over and over again as they evolve; they know there’s always room for improvement and potential for progress. 

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Have you experienced major changes at your organization? How did they make you feel? Share your experience with us on Facebook.

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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