Individual Change: New skills for individual response to change

Many change management practitioners will be familiar with the idea of change at an organizational level; after all, organizational change forms a great deal of what change management is all about. But at ACMP’s Speaker Series on November 8, Dulcie Smith and Steven Ogram, both Change Management practitioners at BC Hydro, took the stage to pose the question: what about change on an individual level?
Dulcie Smith and Steven Ogram
"When we look at organizational change, it's really important that we take a look at how individual people are also adapting to change," said Steven. He noted that individual change is not always linked to a project. "It could be something as small as someone having to move floors. All those little things add up," he said.
For this reason, their work at BC Hydro often focuses on how individuals tend to respond to change: the normal reactions to change, how the human brain responds to change, and different ways to develop resilience to change.
Dulcie suggests that responses to change at an individual level are actually neurologic: sometimes, a part of the brain within the limbic system called the amygdala gets “highjacked” and when this happens the individual’s response tends to be more emotional. These responses can often lead to anxiety, a fight-or-flight response, murky thinking, and distraction. When this happens, the planning portion of the brain (the prefrontal) shuts down and our ability to function well during change is limited.
“That’s not a good place to be,” quipped Dulcie.
Dulcie theorizes that uncertainty and ambiguity are not good for the brain’s emotional response to changeand that's why people usually respond to change better when they know what's going to happen, even if they don't like it. “It allows the brain to plan better,” she said.
While communication is important, Steven and Dulcie stressed that mindset is even more important to help govern personal responses to change. By taking deliberate steps in the face of an emotional response to change, we can build a more positive mindset about change. The trick is to learn how to incorporate fresh skills that help build a stronger resilience to change. Dulcie and Steven suggest these skills usually include self-awareness, a positive attitude, learning to let go, and reframing complaints.
Dulcie suggested that developing response skills isn’t automatic; it’s like learning any new skill, like tai chi or a musical instrument. "The more you practice, the better you're going to get at it," she said. The key, she said, is openness to learning. It's amazing what our brains can do. It's often said that neurons that fire together will wire together...it just takes a bit of practice.
Steven and Dulcie then asked attendees to provide ideas and suggestions about the skills they have seen work in their own organizational environments. The group provided an impressive list of techniques and skills that change practitioners can use to help individuals build a more skilled response to change. The ideas ranged from the conventional (repeating key messages and milestones, additional training, one-on-one conversations) to the novel (circle activities and mindfulness exercises), and even the out-of-the-box (grief rituals and breathing exercises).
The pair rounded out the evening by reminding participants that leading other individuals in skilled responses to change often means starting with ourselves and leading by example.

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