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Why employees get anxious about change – and how to help people embrace it

A group of three young women and two men of different ethnicities are in a business meeting in a modern day office. A bald man is talking to the group while there are laptops and documents on the table.
Talking to people is crucial when making changes to working practices. Photo: Getty (Hinterhaus Productions via Getty Images)

Whether we like it or not – and most of us don’t – change is something we can’t avoid, especially in the workplace. From new managers and colleagues to different technologies and plans, how we do our jobs is constantly evolving. Despite this, many of us struggle to adjust to changes at work. So why do we dislike change – and how can employers help people be more adaptable?

Humans are creatures of habit. One reason for this is a type of cognitive bias called the status quo bias, which goes some way to explain why we are so resistant to change. It means that when we are faced with a challenging decision, people tend to prefer things to stay as they are – and show a preference for choices that maintain the status quo. There are many factors involved in this bias, from not wanting to lose what we own, to wanting to avoid regret.

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We also struggle with change because it can mean uncertainty, something we are hardwired to try to avoid because it can leave us vulnerable to risk. Neuroscience research teaches us that uncertainty registers in our brain much like a mistake does. When faced with a change – such as a new boss – it signifies a diversion from what we know, which often leads to stress. This is because our stress responses are tuned to environmental uncertainty, an evolutionary mechanism that may have once helped us survive as hunter gatherers.

Although most of us aren’t at risk of being eaten by wild animals, this biological mechanism still exists. In fact, researchers at University College London found that even knowing there’s a small chance of getting a painful electric shock can lead to more stress than knowing you’ll definitely be shocked. In other words, it’s the uncertainty – the not knowing – that triggers anxiety. And because change means uncertainty, we get stressed.

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That being said, change is often inevitable. Your company might be restructuring, introducing a new strategy or moving people to different teams. However, research shows that employers can help employees adjust to change more easily with a relatively simple tactic.

How to get employees on board with change

Getting a team to accept a new plan can be difficult. However, the way changes are communicated to employees can make a big difference. According to a recent report in the Academy of Management, the best way to announce change is to emphasise the things that are staying the same.

The report analyses the results of two studies published in 2019. In the first study, researchers carried out a survey of 209 employees and their supervisors from a number of organisations that had announced organisational change plans. These included reorganisations, expansions, changes in leadership and more.

Workers ranked how certain or uncertain they felt about the change, along with what their manager had communicated would remain the same. Meanwhile, managers ranked their report’s support for the change. The results showed that when leaders communicated what would be staying the same, the more supportive people were of the planned changes.

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In the second study, 208 business school students were informed of potential changes to their curriculum. The students received one of two messages – one outlined a vision of change for the curriculum, and the other conveyed the same vision, but emphasised how some things would remain the same.

The results showed that support for change was higher when the vision of change was accompanied by what the researchers termed a ‘vision of continuity’. In other words, people were more accepting of change when they sensed some things would stay familiar.

The research has significant implications for employers. While announcing changes may be unavoidable, highlighting the things that will remain the same may help to alleviate some of the uncertainty and stress. Of course, there will likely still be resistance – particularly when people are faced with unpleasant or difficult changes, such as lay-offs. But the way employers communicate with people can make a big difference.

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