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How to Extend Space and Grace During Change at Work

I’m not an early adopter in my personal life; I am slow to join new tech and fashion trends. But as a leader in my organization, I am always at the forefront of change. I strategize with other managers about how to incorporate required changes and tap into the ideas of employees to implement change from the bottom up.

But change is hard. Here are a few tips that can help ease transitional tension:

1. Empathize. Change is hard.

Why this matters: Change is inevitable, and adapting to change is a survival skill we’ve inherited through natural selection. So, why is it so hard? I think it’s because we have a competing survival trait: conservation of energy. Adapting to change requires a lot of energy. So, it is understandable that people resist change – even our physical bodies resist change. We can thank good old homeostasis for the dreaded weight-loss plateaus and for keeping our body at its happy temperature.

Tip: You can show empathy by letting people vent a little bit and even commiserating on how difficult change is, especially when there is organizational change fatigue. Change is hard for everyone, so tune in to your experience with change and allow space for you to connect with the group or individual around that universal fact.

2. Embrace the Resistance.

Why this matters: No idea or plan is ever perfect, nor should it be. It should be adaptable. That is how I look at the role resistance plays in implementing change. When I lean into resistance, I can adjust the product, process or plan to reach the goal more efficiently.

Tip: Listen closely for resistance because it helps you understand the playing field better. What are people worried about? What potential pitfalls can be avoided?

Sometimes the concerns are things we’ve taken for granted and have not clearly articulated. For instance, when we implemented the new electronic sign-off process (a bottom-up change) to reduce paper use, the attorneys were worried about how they could keep a personal copy of their comments for their records.

Even though the system was designed to eliminate this unnecessary step, we didn’t argue that point, we just showed them how to alleviate that concern by saving locally. We didn’t even need to change the system, just the training. This small adjustment helped them buy into the change.

3. Push With Patience.

Why this matters: Organizations have to adapt to survive. If you see change on the horizon, start preparing your organization early. It is important to remember that encountering resistance isn’t proof that a change shouldn’t happen or isn’t needed. It is a sign that you need to approach the change differently.

Best practice: Introduce change slowly if you can. All change is hard, but small changes over time can help people adapt more easily. Don’t let resistance prevent progress. Take a step back, regroup and try another way.

4. Space for Grace. Room for Growth.

Why this matters: There is ample evidence that mastery comes with practice. Over time, once arduous tasks can be performed with little thought, such as driving or typing. Yet, when approached with a change we are convinced that we will never get it, and it can stress us out.

When we feel stressed, we don’t always operate as our best selves. We all have a stress response. Sometimes people get snippy, nitpicky, pessimistic, inflexible and condescending.

Best practice: When this happens, just remember to give people space and grace. Space: Let them vent without matching their resistance. Grace: Don’t take it personally and encourage them to try again.

This provides a safe environment for them to learn and build confidence, growing into the new expectations. This space for grace is room for growth.

For example, once people at my agency got better at the electronic sign-off system, they attributed their success to system upgrades. But we never changed the design. It felt more intuitive over time because they used it.

The power of practice encouraged by the patient push for change minimized user errors, and the system operated as designed. I love watching people accomplish something they once thought was impossible. It feels like magic!

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Nefertiti is a Supervisory Life Scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She is passionate about employee engagement, mentoring and helping people and groups achieving their goals. Her leadership mantra is, “Prioritize people. Simplify processes. Celebrate progress.” In her free time, she enjoys reading, drawing and writing. Nefertiti is the mother of a curious and compassionate seven-year-old, with whom she enjoys rediscovering the world.

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Avatar photo Pearl Kim

Thanks for breaking down how people can respond to change, slowly and graciously! Especially love how you articulated embracing the resistance.