Planning for the emotional side of change

Scott Franklin, Life Cycle Engineering

As organizations go through change, the simple view is that we start with our existing activities, behaviors and beliefs; define a new set of activities, behaviors and beliefs; and replace the old with the new. In reality, this transition is anything but linear. In his book “Managing Transitions”, William Bridges analyzes the transition process and points out that transitions are mostly about the emotional difficulty of letting go of the old (and comfortable and familiar) behaviors and learning the new (and unknown and unfamiliar) behaviors.

In 1991, my wife and I moved from Washington, D.C., where we had lived for five years, back to Charleston, S.C.This was a relocation that we were very excited about and were lucky to be able to make. The move was easy. Our townhouse in Alexandriasold in 10 days (for the asking price), we bought a new house on our first house-hunting trip (for below the asking price), and our respective employers found us open positions in Charlestonwell before we moved. While the move was easy, the transition was much more difficult than we expected. There is a frantic energy in the D.C. area that was noticeably absent in Charleston, our personal and professional relationships mostly remained in D.C., our new house was (and is) great, but our townhouse was our first home and held numerous great memories while our new house held none. It took almost 12 months for both of us to really adjust to the new location. The move was easy; the transition was hard.

In my experience working with organizations going through significant change, the most successful ones acknowledge, appreciate and plan for the emotional side of the change. In the example of my relocation, the closer we got to the move date, the more I questioned the sanity of the idea. We were trading in a significant amount of knowns for an equally significant amount of unknowns. I’ve seen organizations refer to this transition time as the crazy time – as in “We must have been crazy to think this was a good idea.” Rationally, everything made sense. Emotionally, everything seemed out of sync.

Organizations that successfully manage change practice four steps to ease the emotional rollercoaster of transition:

1)Communicate the compelling reason to change

When my wife and I had our mini-struggles with our decision, we always went back to the core reasons we wanted to leave D.C.: cost of living, pace, availability of child-care for our imminent first child, etc. Likewise, when planning for a major change, an organization’s leaders need to spend time creating a compelling reason for the change which resonates throughout the organization. It may be a good idea, the right thing to do, better for everyone, etc.; however, unless you dig down into the specifics of why this change is essential, you will struggle during the crazy time. Properly done, the reason for change provides both an ongoing reminder of why you chose to pursue the change and the sense of urgency to start now.

2) Create an inspiring vision of the future

An inspiring vision creates and sustains the excitement and enthusiasm to drive the change through to completion. Effective leaders ensure that the organization shares the vision. In his book “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge observed that a critical failure of leadership is the inability to turn a personal vision into a shared vision. The key to creating a shared vision is to realize that everyone views the future from a personal perspective. What is inspiring and desirable to one may be confusing and undesirable to another. A shared vision actually can appear differently to each person. For example, my vision of living in Charlestonincluded closer proximity to the corporate headquarters, a shorter commute to work and a woodworking shop in the garage. My wife’s view was closer to the beach, no snow in winter and in-home child care. We had multiple views of one vision. Creating an inspiring vision of the future is only truly accomplished if it becomes personal – and that takes work.

3)Create a plan of action

To repeat an old proverb:

A vision without a plan is just a dream.

A plan without a vision is just drudgery.

But a vision with a plan can change the world.

By its very definition, a vision is intangible. It only exists as a concept, an idea, or an expectation. However, while the vision is intangible, the actions to make the vision a reality should not be. Once the vision is created and shared, the immediate question will be (in unison now) “What do you want me to do?” Having been both the victim and the perpetrator of vision with no plans (“We don’t know all the details, we will figure it out as we go”), I know that creating a detailed action plan is not a step you can eliminate. Nor is it a step to start without creating the compelling reason to change and the inspiring vision of the future.

4)Reinforce expectations for new behaviors

In 1519, Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez landed in Mexicoon the shores of the Yucatan, with his eye on the great treasures there, treasures the Spaniards believed to be hoarded by the Aztecs. Many adventurers had come before and failed, and Cortez committed to succeeding – or more importantly – to making the cost of failure so high that success would be the only viable option. He rallied his men together and – in what was undeniably a world-class final pep talk – convinced his men to “burn the ships.”

Failure was redefined from going home to dead. In many organizations, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase, “We have processes; we just don’t follow them.” These organizations tend towards compliance through encouragement vs. reinforcement. In these organizations, you will see the old ships (i.e., processes) ready by the pier, available for use “only when necessary” – which loosely translates into “for now and the foreseeable future.” To paraphrase my older brother, when leading change there will be times when you will “have to open up a can of Hernando Cortez” and remove the option of “the old way.”

In the spirit of enlightened leadership, it’s important to remember that Cortez made sure his men were safely ashore and participated in the decision to burn the ships. The term reinforcement can unfortunately tend to encourage thoughts of punishment or corrective actions. When reinforcing compliance with new processes, focus plenty of time and attention on those that are doing and trying, even if their early efforts are imperfect. If some individuals are avoiding the new processes, then privately (one-on-one) find out why. Listen honestly without prejudice. Then, in your role as coach, help them. No threats, no “or else,” no judgments – just clarity and support. I’ve worked for a number of different managers, and the ones that take the time to understand my reservations, remove obstacles, and gently but firmly make their expectations clear NEVER have to refer to the consequences of non-compliance.

How do you know that the first three steps are complete? When the people in your organization can tell you:

1) Why we are doing this

2) What it will look like

3) What is in it for them

4) What they will be losing/giving up

5) What you expect them to do

If your people can’t explain each of these to you, then change is going to be like pushing a rope. Your people may understand the changes and even (conceptually) agree with them, but they won’t be equipped to begin the transition – and without the fourth step (reinforcement), they will struggle with sticking to the new ways long enough to become proficient and comfortable enough to sustain the change.

Charles Darwin stated, “It is not the strongest that survives, nor is it the most intelligent that survives, it is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Organizational change is a complex endeavor and is much easier to do wrong than right. Planning for the emotional side of change is critical to helping people make the transition from old behaviors to new ones. These four steps are easy to understand, and although significant work is required to accomplish each of them effectively, they can form the foundation for successful organizational change.

About the author:

With more than 20 years experience in organizational design, change management and a dedicated focus on delivering sustainable improvements, Scott Franklin is a well-respected authority on organizational change, specializing in the leadership responsibilities of change management. Scott brings specific expertise in the areas of creating a combined learning organization in parallel with a strengths-based organization, while simultaneously creating a culture of execution. You can reach Scott at For more information about Life Cycle Engineering, visit

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About the Author

With more than 20 years experience in organizational design, change management and a dedicated focus on delivering sustainable improvements, Scott Franklin is a well-respected authority on organ...