Changing the way we work is not easy. It requires us to learn new ways of doing things and new ways of communicating with each other. At the same time, most people find change stressful. The more fundamental the change, the more stressful it potentially feels.
The problem is that people cannot learn when they are stressed. The more radical the change, the greater the need to learn new ways of working, but the harder it is to learn. Consequently many, perhaps most, large-scale change initiatives fail, not because of failings in business process redesign, but because people are not willing, or find it impossible, to get behind the change.
To counteract this paradox, successful change requires high levels of positive emotion and social bonding, which tend to improve our capabilities and performance. Psychology researchers like Barbara Fredrickson and Alice Isen have discovered that positive emotions have bottom-line benefits, because they improve our capabilities. When we feel good we can think more strategically, absorb information quicker, we are more creative, we reach decisions faster, we recover more quickly from setbacks, and even our health improves (these findings are summarised in an accessible article here).
More research, quoted in The New Leaders by Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee, finds that a positive ’emotional climate’ in the workplace improves productivity, the customer experience, and even patient mortality statistics in hospitals.
So how do we make change less stressful and engender a positive emotional climate? How do we ensure that the way we manage, the way we involve people in change, and even the information-gathering process fosters engagement and a good feeling about change, helping people to get into a better state to learn and create new ways of working?
Right from the start, we should be asking questions which focus on the positive – on achievements we are proud of, best practices, and best experiences. This will tend to generate the positive affect needed for best performance, persistence, learning, and resilience to setbacks.