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Emotions in the change process

As I already mentioned in the blog post “Do I have to do that? Can I do that? Do I want to do that?” organizational change is inseparably linked to personal emotions. These emotions should be regarded as the elixir of life for any change. They release energy, they attribute meaning, they force progress. In our book, ‘Kanban in IT’ (to appear in English soon), Sigi Kaltenecker and I devoted a whole chapter to emotions in the change process. In this article I want to provide a little insight into a very broad theme.

The consultant team, Barbara Heitger and Alexander Doujak, in their book “Die Logik der Gefühle und die Macht der Zahlen“ (The logic of feelings and the power of figures) describe four categories of feelings which typically arise during the change process:

  • Insecurity, concern, fear are particularly prevalent in the first phase of the change curve.
  • Frustration and aggression are the determining feelings in the second phase of the typical change process.
  • Sadness and disappointment mark the phase of ‘‘emotional acceptance“.
  • Optimism, joy and courage blend with recognition, intensive practice and integration in the change process.

Insecurity, concern, fear

In practice such feelings neither are clearly sorted nor are they unadulterated. What uncertainty, what concern and what fear are, usually cannot be exactly determined in daily life. In addition, these feelings are often hidden. Since insecurity or fear cause vulnerability, these feelings are – particularly among men – presented in the crude form of aggression. On the other hand, the feelings are hidden plainly and simply by the fact that they are suppressed. In addition to struggle and aggression, avoidance and ignorance are equally good ways of dealing with unpleasant feelings.

The American organizational scientist, Edgar H. Schein, showed in his book “Organizational Culture and Leadership” that in change processes two particular forms of fear arise, existential angst and fear of learning. Both fears have very different origins.

In the case of existential angst the issues are

  • The threat of a loss of status: “Tomorrow I will no longer be a manager”,
  • The devaluation of one’s own expertise: “Tomorrow all my experience as a project manager will no longer count”,
  • The threat of the disappearance of the trusted environment: “Tomorrow I will be working in a completely new team”.

In the course of learning fears will be evoked both by the necessary acquisition of new skills or areas of knowledge as well as by the equally necessary unlearning of the old. Fears such as

  • Of temporary or permanent incompetence: “I simply cannot do it”,
  • On account of incompetence, having to expect punishment or at least disadvantages: “If I don’t hack it, I will lose my position”,
  • Of  suffering a personal loss of identity: “My life long I have been a development specialist, why now should I have to analyse or test?”,
  • Of no longer being a member of a certain group or community: “What will happen if in my specialist area I lose the rapport to my colleagues?”

For these reasons it is important to realize that change processes involve not only learning something new but also unlearning the old.

Frustration and aggression

It is common knowledge that one does not have to flee from threats – you can confront them and conquer them. Anger and aggression are established means of doing so. If in the context of information events loud boos resound when the team leader on the jour fixe is accused of treason, or when in the coffee corner one hears nothing but curses about “those up there”, we are already in the middle of the issue. It’s about setting boundaries. Personal identity must be maintained and anything threatening must be kept in check. Anger and aggression play an important role in the context of profound change processes and these need to be accepted and endured. People have to let off steam to make room for the new. Thunderstorms are known to have a cleansing  function – provided you provide a good lightning conductor, not least in the form of professional support from experienced change facilitators.

Sadness and disappointment

Sadness helps to let certain things go and to put then behind us. Before we can look forward to the future, our present is dominated by different colored images in our memory. These images of mourning, like frustration or aggression, must find expression.

Optimism, joy and courage 

If what are experienced as negative feelings such as fear, frustration or sadness are processed well, they leave room for positive experiences. Often there is a surprising openness to change once the past is really let go. Energy can now focus on learning, on practicing improved processes and integrating modified working methods. Old strengths are accessed in new contexts, the tried and tested appears in a new form. A true reconciliation takes place, a bridge between yesterday, today and tomorrow.

What now?

To bring changes on track, it is imperative to understand these emotions properly. Only a profound knowledge of the different forms, dynamics and functions of emotions can form the basis for promising change management. However, beware of control illusions. Emotions arise neither in a uniform way or at the same time. They need different amounts of time, space and attention. They are not predictable. And there is no magical solution to eliminate all emotional challenges. Nevertheless, change management cannot avoid addressing emotions. Because without emotional mobilization no change initiative can progress.


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