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How to manage change in the workplace

Leading & managing change 10th September 2020

This video and accompanying toolkit shares insights on dealing with change in the workplace; the psychological impact that change can have on team members; and what leaders and managers can do to identify and best manage those so that people are more likely to embrace change and are able to adapt quickly to new situations. 

Free download

Workbook: Anticipating, recognising and motivating people’s responses to change


About the speaker

Lisa has a rich experience in organisational change and change management, with a specialism in organisational and cultural transformations.

Over the past 20 years Lisa has held a number of senior consultant and programme management positions across sectors and tackled a range of challenges associated to organisational and behavioural change, organisational transformations, cross-cultural working, leadership and team coaching.

Whilst Lisa’s work is vast and varied, it all shares a common thread – to support organisations in achieving their strategic goals.

Lisa is a Principal Consultant at Rubica and is involved in leading and delivering our organisational change programmes.

Find out more about Lisa


How to manage change in the workplace – the impact when change is mismanaged

Our work in change has shown that unless leaders and mangers recognised the personal and psychological impacts of what a change might be on each member of their team, and recognise that this is different for each person, then this can lead to disengagement or resistance to the change.

As well as this causing tension during the transition, the chances of behavioural change being achieved and embedded are significantly reduced.

By being able to identify what each person believes they are losing as a result of a change, leaders and managers are able to address people’s concerns directly and help them to transition through a change in a way that is engaging, safe and supportive. And which enables them to maintain their performance and the overall productivity of the team.

In the following video, taken from our Leading Through Change course, we’ll share ideas on how to handle change in the workplace, by identifying individual motivational drivers and recognise how different aspects of your organisational change may impact each person’s drivers.

We’ll do this be exploring threat and reward triggers. We’ll give you a framework for identifying different approaches that are needed for motivating each team member – it is based on a model by David Rock, called the SCARF model. Where the letters S C A R F are a pneumonic for the 5 common factors that can activate a threat or reward response in social situations.

Handling change in the workplace – how the brain perceives change

Let’s start by recapping on the concepts of Threat and Reward from Module 1. We talked about how our brains are programmed for survival. The amygdala the part of the brain that is supposed to scan the environment for threats and rewards is constantly at work. And whilst the other parts of our brains have adapted, the amygdala still functions today as it did in prehistoric times.

The amygdala sends messages to the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that makes decisions and does all our logical processing and complex thinking. When our brains detect a threat, we experience a surge of adrenalin and a quickening of heart rate, that we recognise as the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response that comes to us when we are in a dangerous situation. It is a highly effective response when we need to respond quickly e.g. when our car is about to crash. However, we looked at how this is not an effective response for a prolonged threat. Because, when we are in that state, the blood flow in our brain is prioritised to the areas that are necessary for escaping the perceived threat, and away from the parts of the brain that do planning, rational thinking and managing of emotions. And the reason this is so relevant to change, is that our brains treat uncertainty as a threat and therefore in a change situation, our brains are put into a threat state for a prolonged period. This has a significant impact on our productivity, focus and wellbeing.

Here is a reminder of the threat and reward responses in the brain. When we are in threat mode we may:

  • Be distracted
  • Think less clearly
  • See threats that don’t exist
  • Have narrower vision
  • Have reduced memory
  • Experience poorer performance
  • Have increased cortisol (the stress hormone)

On the other hand, the reward response can clearly have a significant positive impact on us, as we feel more:

  • Positive and engaged
  • Focused
  • Resilient
  • Willing to collaborate
  • Innovative
  • Creative
  • Increased dopamine (the happy hormones)

So, to handle change in the workplace effectively we really want our people to be in the ‘reward’ state during change, and its important for us as leaders to keep people in that reward state and move them away from their threat state to not only help with their wellbeing and stress levels, but also to help with their performance and the overall productivity of the team.

How to cope with change in the workplace – the SCARF Model by David Rock

Whilst we’ve looked an uncertainty as one of the factors that can cause a threat or reward response, there are other factors too which can have the same effect.

Understanding these factors can help us to understand the behaviour of our team members and how to make change stick.

The SCARF model contains 5 domains of social experience:

  1. Status
  2. Certainty
  3. Autonomy
  4. Relatedness
  5. Fairness

Each of us has our own SCARF profile i.e. which of these domains is of more or less importance in our own personal motivations.

What a leader can do – when they know which of these drivers is more important to an individual – they can help them move away from their threat response and move towards their reward response.

Move people away from a threat response and towards a reward response when handling change in the workplace

  1. Status: is about relative importance to others. So if your organisational change affects how someone sees themselves within the hierarchy, this can have a significant threat response for them. Equally, if someone feels as though their status is elevated as a result of a change, this will prompt a reward response.

So what can you do to help here? Publicly acknowledge the contribution that person is making and make them feel good about themselves in front of their peers. Say how well they are doing and also provide them with personal development opportunities.

  1. Certainty: is about the ability to predict the future. This is significant for all of us when going through change, however for some people this is more of a driver than for others. Some people cope ok with a lack of information, but for others until they have all of the information they won’t settle.

So communicating with people as openly as you can, and providing that clear roadmap with clear priorities and giving people small steps all helps with putting them into a reward response with certainty.

  1. Autonomy: this is about providing a sense of control over events. This is about how much we are entrusted to work on our own. So if this is a big driver for us, any organisational change that empowers us would be great for us. But in contrast, if we feel the change is reducing our level of autonomy and we feel more controlled this can cause a threat response.

So you as a leader can help people get involved with things they can help with – areas where they can have some autonomy. So we talked previously about having small groups which did some problem solving/idea generation – helping to paint a picture of what the future might look like for your team. Involving people who have a high autonomy need is really important in that.

  1. Relatedness: is about a sense of safety with others – whether someone is a friend or a foe. So it is about our sense of belonging, and relationships within the group – be that our immediate team or relationships with others. If we feel isolated, this can cause a real threat response in us. People with a strong relatedness need will keep seeking reassurance about their relationship.

So it is important during times of change that if you have people who you know have a strong relatedness need to help set-up systems that will help them e.g. buddy systems, mentoring etc. Small groups are always perceived to be safer than larger groups with a relatedness need.

  1. Fairness: is about fair exchanges with people. If fairness is a key driver for us and we feel anything about a change is unfair, the threat response that this causes in us can result in strong resistance to the change.

So you can help with this by making sure there is transparency and increasing the level of communication and involvement through the change.

So you’ll see that if you understand your team’s individual profiles, you can understand why they feel under threat and you can help to minimise that. Equally if you know the drivers that can activate a reward, you can tap into those to motivate a reward response.

Summary: How to handle change in the workplace

So to summarise what we’ve covered in the video:

  1. Understanding the individual motivations and preferences of each member of our team, helps us to understand how they receive a change, and how ready they are to engage with it.
  2. Our motivations to change are underpinned by our brain’s role in seeking out threat’s and rewards. When a change triggers a threat response in us, it makes it very difficult for us to focus on our work, and it is very challenging for us to engage with a change and to learn. On the other hand, a reward response puts us into a state where we are open to learning and respond positively to change. Therefore leaders need to anticipate what in each person will trigger a threat response and understand how to move that towards a reward response.
  3. The SCARF model gives us a good framework for understanding the motivational drivers of each person and for anticipating when a threat response might occur of have already occurred.

If you’d like to put into action what Lisa has discussed in this video, download the free toolkit at the end of this video, via the link below. It shares some great ideas for putting her top tips into action.

*Source: ‘The big reason why some people are terrified of change‘, Forbes, 2016