Published in TDAN.com October 2000
One very influential factor that can potentially undermine your document strategy is the natural and emotional reactions of people when things change. It is common to take great care in the
selection and implementation of new technology. Interactions between hardware and software are cautiously investigated, operating systems and network connections are carefully tested, and up time
on critical systems is painstakingly protected. But if people resist change, find ways to sabotage efforts, or become angry or withdrawn, it is much less likely that your strategy will have
Resistance to change is often a more troubling problem than even the most complicated tangle of technology. To make matters worse, rapid innovation in technology is forcing people to face change at
an ever-quickening pace. This rapidity, coupled with the apparently inevitable and chronic “technical difficulties” associated with high-tech change, has given rise to a pattern of
resistance that has become a norm of corporate culture. Most people automatically resist change. How can you mitigate the negative effects of people’s reactions as you implement change and
execute a document strategy?
Resistance to change is natural
Roger Von Oech said it best when he said: “There are two basic rules of life: Change is inevitable and everybody resists change.” Resistance to change is as congenital as being
frightened of the dark, having a crush at age sixteen or laughing at the Three Stooges. Little can be done to avoid these reactions. They are natural, emotional and inevitable. This innate
resistance to change occurs because most people like things to be comfortable and familiar. They like to feel capable and confident in their work. Imagine the impact of change on the ability of
people to feel comfortable, capable and confident. Your document strategy can upset all of these factors – people must learn new systems, work in new ways and accept new responsibilities.
People facing change often go through a cycle of emotions similar to those experienced when faced with the death of a loved one. Enacting change is somewhat less disturbing. Nevertheless, by
understanding the “grieving” process people use to deal with change you will be better prepared to lessen some of the potentially damaging consequences.
Consider the cycle of emotions that people are likely to experience when faced with change.
The Comfort Zone
“The Comfort Zone” is where people reside emotionally before dramatic change occurs. When people are in their comfort zone, they feel in control of their lives and work. Generally, they
are happy and comfortable with the way things are. They are confident in their abilities and feel capable of handling whatever situations arise. Will you disrupt employees’ comfort zones by
changing the methods and routines of their work? When people are asked to use new processes and perform new duties, they may feel that their control over their work is diminished. They might lose
confidence when “the way we’ve always done it” gives way to something new and unknown. Are these people laggards who are unwilling to join the cause of improvement and innovation?
Not necessarily. Most people would rather feel a little bit stagnant, complacent and bored than face the possibility of losing their comfort zone.
The No Zone
“No!” is the common reaction of people who face departure from their comfort zone. The “No Zone” is the beginning of the end of the way things always have been and is
characterized by several reactions.
Like deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming pickup truck, people often become psychologically paralyzed at the news of change in their work-lives. Their shock immediately affects their
performance. Although the basic work gets done, people tend to shut down. How do you help people break their trance-like stare into the onrushing headlights of change? When people are physically in
shock we cover them with a warm blanket. What people need now, in psychological terms, is also a “warm blanket.” Now is not the time to reason with them about all the ways change is
good. Now is the time for emotional first aid – listening and understanding “where it hurts” will help mitigate the trauma of change.
After their initial shock, people may enter a stage of denial. This defense mechanism acts as a buffer and allows people to collect themselves. It is not uncommon to hear comments like: “This
won’t affect our department,” or “I give it six months and it’ll pass.” At times, denial can take form in extensive rituals. For example, a person may ardently dispute
the findings of a report and claim that the data must be in error – or insist that endless meetings be held (and then not show up). Some people, like patients unhappy with their
doctor’s diagnosis, will shop around with other managers or sponsors until they find someone with a more reassuring second opinion.
When they can no longer deny the inevitable, people often become angry. Anger is difficult to manage because it can be channeled in so many different directions and thrust into the workplace almost
at random. In contrast to denial, which is for the most part internalized to an individual, a person who is angry affects everyone around him. One way you can cope is by placing yourself in the
shoes of that angry person. Where does the anger come from? A person who is respected and understood, who is given attention and a little time, will soon lower his voice and reduce his angry
Resentment, Frustration and Sabotage
Some of the anger people feel may manifest as resentment, frustration or sabotage. People may resent you for upsetting their comfort zone. They may secretly envy those in charge and feel
frustrated that their control has been eroded. They may become passive-aggressive and subtly sabotage efforts by doing nothing, hoarding information or providing erroneous information. People may
truly disrespect those in authority based upon their experience if the actions of management have been ineffective in the past.
The “No-Zone” is an emotional phase. It is difficult and delicate for everyone involved. Resistance to change is at its peak. Those who are the target of change will not be willing to
plan for the future. A dialogue must take place before you plan, but only when people are ready to face it.
It is equally important, however, that resistive people not hold you and the project hostage. If you believe your motives are sound and your solutions are viable, it is more important now than ever
that you hold your course. Don’t let the naysayers drag you down.
People in “The Gap” are people in limbo. They know they can’t go back, but each wonders: “How do I fit in this picture?” You must allow people to reflect and discover
their own view about how they are a part of things. Foster this process by helping people understand their role in the change and how they can make it successful. Do this with education, and
training, and by planning people-specific roles.
It is imperative that you establish a vision for the future while in the gap, and then enact specific tactics to achieve that vision. A clear plan is critical because people in the gap are people
sitting on the fence. They are not necessarily resisting change, but they have not given their complete commitment either. Now is the best opportunity to bring fence sitters through the gap to
acceptance. Without an understanding about where things are going and how everyone will get there, the opportunity to build commitment and acceptance for your document strategy will be lost.
Some people accept change quickly. Others figure that since denial and anger didn’t work, perhaps they can succeed in entering into some sort of agreement that will postpone the inevitable.
For example, if a four-year-old does not get his way, he will stomp his foot and go sulk in his room. He will not accept “No” when he wants ice cream for breakfast. Soon, he’ll
have second thoughts and put on extra-good behavior. “If I pick up all my toys, then can I have ice cream?” he’ll eventually ask. Grown-up people will bargain too. They will
bargain for ways to get back to their comfort zone.
People in the gap also experience depression. It is important to draw a distinction between reactive and preparatory depression, since each is different in nature and should be dealt with quite
Reactive depression happens when people are reacting to, and becoming depressed by, the things that are taking place. They are worried about how change will affect the basics like money,
job and family. The “downside” of change – reassignment, retraining and reengineering – is evident, but even the “upside” has drawbacks. For instance, a golden
opportunity presented to one lucky overachiever may actually result in a loss of precious family time at home. While the new job may look good on paper, this change represents a potentially
disruptive force on a personal level. Any change, even positive change, results in a loss of something – tangible or intangible. Your can alleviate the effects of reactive depression by
recognizing how change can strike home for an individual.
Preparatory depression, on the other hand, does not occur as a result of what is presently happening, but rather, as the emotional process of preparing for what is ahead. If you allow
people to grieve for the old ways they will find acceptance of the new much easier. Preparatory depression is necessary for people to get ready for the impending change, yet the typical reaction to
sad people is to try to cheer them up. “Look on the bright side” can be a useful approach when dealing with reactive depression, but when the depression is helping to prepare a person
for impending change, cheery words are not meaningful. To look only at the sunny side of things means people are not allowed to contemplate how they fit in the picture of impending change.
By now people recognize that things are not going to be the way they were, but they don’t yet know the shape of the future. They are anxiously torn, part hanging on to the old, while another
is accepting the new. When people feel anxious about their jobs, uncertain about where to place their trust and unclear about the future, honest communication is critical. You must have
the courage to describe reality as closely as possible to what you know reality to be. People need to know how change will impact their lives. If people are afraid of the dark, give them a
flashlight and do your best to assure them there are no monsters hiding under the bed.
The Go Zone
The “Go Zone” is when everyone is truly on board and ready to go. If people have enough time and are given some help in working through the previous stages, they eventually come to a
feeling of acceptance with a certain degree of expectation. Implementing some “rites of passage” at this point can be beneficial as a way to provide closure of the past and momentum
toward the future. For example, one company took a prototype printer to the parking lot and allowed people to take turns whacking it with a sledgehammer. Another held a pizza party in an empty
production facility before it was refitted for new office space. A third took a photo of the “old gang” and put the image on coffee mugs inscribed with “RIP” – rest in
Some people never reach the necessary stage of acceptance. They fight to the end and struggle with every step. It is imperative that those people who have been sitting on the fence, and unwilling
or unable to get enrolled in the change, either get on board or get out. You and your sponsor must take determinative action or risk undermining the commitment of those who have already come to
accept change. Expectations must be made clear, time limits must be set and corrective action, including termination, must be taken if necessary. Acutely resistive people need to understand:
“This is what I need for you to do to support the change – this is what will happen if you do not.”
Excitement, Clarity and Implementation
In the Go Zone you have the ship pointed North, the winds at your back and all hands on deck. People have become excited about the possibilities and are clear about their place in the paradigm. Now
is the time to establish action items and cross-functional teams. Now is the time for technology implementation and project management. Now is the time for communication, collaboration and clarity
People will go through this cycle at varying rates and their reactions will be dynamic – not a steady progression. They may skip certain emotional experiences or linger longer in some more
than others. If you recognize and understand the emotional implications of change, as well as the technological hurdles that must be overcome, you will be more likely to bring about meaningful and
beneficial change with your document strategy.
Copyright Kevin Craine, 2000