Are you managing the emotional side of change?


Tyler is passionate about helping libraries turn change into opportunity, and as Director of OCLC Implementation, he supports libraries through diverse transformations, including everything from workflow analysis to library technology implementations.

When you’re leading any kind of change, maneuvering to get an ideal outcome can be tricky. I’m often asked by leaders in the throes of change management efforts, “What’s the one thing that can’t be missed?” The one element that could deter all the work to build awareness, acceptance, and action. My response is pretty much always the same: Never underestimate the emotional side of change.

Did I just get all warm and fuzzy on you? Yes, I did. And it’s important, especially because this aspect of change is often overlooked. The reality is that all change begins and ends with human beings—and humans are driven by emotions.

I suspect the emotional side of change is often avoided because it’s messy and uncomfortable. It can also be overwhelming to try to formalize an approach since emotion manifests in so many different ways. So, when it comes to emotions and change, I focus on one key factor… trust.

That makes it simple, right? Well, not really. It actually brings up more questions. Like, how do you gain and sustain trust through change? Let’s break it down.

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Be real about fear

As you move through your formal change management plan, keep it real. I mean really real. Be open and authentic about your own change demons. How they make you feel. How they make you react. Encourage others to do the same. When you help staff identify their personal fears and put context around it, you temper emotional reactions. Not only do you send a message that it’s okay to be afraid, but that it’s also normal and expected.

Show respect for every perspective

When things shift, every person in your organization at every level has a different perspective. Understand that and respect it. It’s not about integrating every perspective into broad communication and guidance—that’s impossible. It’s about recognizing that people will have an emotional reaction, assuming a general position of non-judgement, and including flexibility in your plan. That way you can make adjustments as you gain better understanding of how things play out across the organization.

Temper expectations with patience

With change, some things are non-negotiable. Some things just have to get done. But if those messages are delivered openly and honestly, and vetted through a lens of respect, trust is established as part of the process. Of course, emotions can be disruptive, but avoiding them altogether isn’t reasonable, isn’t a good tactic, and can be even more disruptive. In fact, I look at emotional responses as opportunities to gain knowledge, make stronger connections, and build understanding for the broader change effort.

Replace the personal with the collective

In moments of change, people often take things personally. Do any of these sound familiar:

  • I’m failing.
  • I’m being targeted.
  • I’m not going to be able to do this.
  • I’m the only one being this badly impacted.

If you can get ahead of these kinds of reactions, you can turn them into a constructive exercise by replacing personal emotions with collective tasks, goals, and your ultimate vision. Also, communicate clearly that people’s value—to you, the organization, to the mission, to their job—is not in question. Once they process this, most people move through their initial emotional reactions quickly.

Emotions and change go hand-in-hand. It’s part of the process. You can deny this. Or you can accept it. Or, better yet, you can use it as an opportunity to build trust and enthusiasm for your change vision. The benefits will last well beyond getting to your ideal change outcomes.