All Change Please. Understanding The Psychology Of Change And Managing Change Using Positive Psychology

All Change Please. Understanding The Psychology Of Change And Managing Change Using Positive Psychology

Why Do We Need To Change?

Change is fundamental for life. From an evolutionary, Darwinian perspective, change means survival. The behaviours or traits of individuals that are most beneficial persist to help the species adapt to a changing environment. In business, a similar evolution is essential for growth, as Richard Branson, who not only embraces, but actively promotes change for the continued success of his business, says:

“Every success story is a tale of constant adaption, revision and change. A company that stands still will soon be forgotten. Trying to provoke positive change is a principle we’ve embedded across the Virgin family for more than four decades.”

In this article, we will explore some of the psychological approaches to change and examine how business leaders and managers can better manage the individual through times of change, taking lessons from positive psychology.

What Expectations Do We Have For Change?

Change in our lives is not just essential, it is inevitable and we have learned to expect it. Our life’s journey is a series of transformations as we adapt our routines from one stage of our lives to the next, in an ever-changing environment of new technologies and trends. As teenagers, we study for exams or we rebel, as adults we take on responsibilities of care, for ourselves, for partners and families, for elderly relatives. In our jobs, we become experts, or re-invent ourselves in new jobs. We learn to balance work and family and then we transition from work into retirement.

How is Organisational Change Different?

If we have a certain degree of acceptance that our lives will change, why is organisational change met with such distaste, resistance and sometimes even terror? Is it because it is enforced, making us feel powerless? It is because it is poorly managed? Certainly, these issues have an impact on our experience of change, but change happens first at an individual level and is fundamentally about having to adopt different behaviours or actions. These actions may conflict with our understanding or beliefs and therefore change can cause an emotional response. Social psychologist, Festinger wrote in 1957 about cognitive dissonance, the distressed mental state, sometimes associated with change, when our beliefs and actions do not match.

How Does Change Happen?

One example of when our beliefs differ from actions is if we have unrealistic expectations about how quickly change might take to happen and our new habits to form. Dr Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon operating in the 1950s, identified that it took patients a minimum of 21 days to adapt to a change of image following cosmetic surgery or even limb amputation. Despite the lack of empirical evidence, the 21 day adaptation has been promoted in change schemes to encourage participants (i.e. it will not take long to weather a difficult change process). Does it really only take 21 days?

How Long Does Change Take To Happen?

UK based researcher, Phillippa Lally conducted a study of 96 participants in 2010 to answer this question. The study found that on average it took 66 days to form new habit. However, individual results ranged from 18 days to 254 days depending on the person. No one size fits all. She also discovered that forming new behaviour is not an unrelenting development. We can sometimes fail during the process and still get back on track to forming the habits. We can therefore be kinder to ourselves when approaching change – we should not expect it to happen within weeks and we shouldn’t worry about being perfect. A shift in expectation can facilitate change, as Albert Einstein said,

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

How Can Employers Successfully Manage The Change Process?

So what is the best way for employers to foster change, taking into account our beliefs, expectations and ways of thinking. Writing in the McKinsey Quarterly publication, Lawson and Price (2003) identify four conditions for a change mindset:

1. Give change meaning and purpose.
If the employee believes there is a purpose for change, there will be little conflict between their beliefs and actions, making it easier for them to embrace change.

2. Ensure that the rewards and recognition fit new behaviour.
A strategic approach to change is essential to ensure that there is a fit between the tasks set and the rewards offered for performance. For example, if managers are asked to communicate with their reports more frequently, this must be included as a metric for their own performance.

3. Empower employees with skills to work new routines.
Taking the example above, managers should be trained in how to communicate effectively so that the greater frequency of communication has an optimal impact.

4. Ensure managers model behaviour to embed positive actions.
If employees experience behaviour from senior staff they respect they will be more likely to adopt it themselves. If leaders’ behaviour is backed up by their immediate team, a level of consistency in new behaviours is created, which allows it to naturally flow down to the more junior levels.

How Can Positive Psychology Help?

The wellbeing of individuals and the impact on the bottom line of business profit has been much talked about in recent years, due to the number of employees taking time off for stress related issues and high employee turnover. But how can wellbeing have a positive impact? Positive psychology researchers Avey, Wensing and Luthans (2008) studied 132 employees across varied types of organisation and discovered that their “psychological capital” underpinned the positive emotion that in turn drove good organisational change behaviour.

The psychological capital of an individual, that is the psychological resources that person has at their disposal to maintain a good level of psychological wellbeing, consists of 4 elements:

1. Hope: having a goal to aim for, and the will and way to reach that goal.
2. Optimism: expecting good things and belief in their ability to make good things happen.
3. Resilience: the ability to bounce back and learn from difficult experiences.
4. Self-efficacy: the belief and confidence in their own ability in their role.

This suggests that we should be looking at change programmes with wellbeing at the centre, and a focus on psychological resources to change our beliefs, expectation and thinking around change.

How Can Employers Adopt A Strategic Approach To Change?

Namasté Culture will be running a Wellbeing Project Planning Workshop, in which we work through assessment, communication and practical steps to putting wellbeing at the heart of business processes and drive change in a positive way. The next project management workshop is running on 23 February. Please contact Jacqui on 01954 267 640 or via e-mail for more information or to book a place.

Additional References:

Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford university press.
Maltz, M. (2015). Psycho-Cybernetics, Updated and Expanded. Penguin.
Lally, Phillippa, et al. “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world.” European journal of social psychology 40.6 (2010): 998-1009.
Avey, J. B., Wernsing, T. S., & Luthans, F. (2008). Can positive employees help positive organizational change? Impact of psychological capital and emotions on relevant attitudes and behaviors. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44(1), 48-70.
Psychology Today:

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