Johanna Tynkkynen: Emotions during a change

Recently, while walking with my dog, I listened to Camilla Tuominen’s inspiring but thought-provoking piece “Emotions don’t belong in the workplace” (Otava, 2020). It got me thinking about the emotions I personally go through during a change project, but also the emotions of my customers, who typically are top leaders of internationally listed companies and the employees affected by the change. Everything from excitement and happiness to distress and desperation.

How should we deal with emotions during change execution, and should they be discussed? Why is it that sometimes (especially during the prime time of Teams meetings) it seems like people are not able to verbalize and explain how they perceive the change, and what thoughts it provokes?

In her book, Camilla Tuominen highlights three reasons why we tend to stay quiet rather than take action. How should one deal with these reasons during change management planning and execution?

1. Hopelessness when facing a massive change

Often it might feel like we get smashed under the weight of massive change projects. For example, when a global enterprise resource planning program is implemented, there are usually numerous things changing at once: processes, ways of working, leadership styles, organizational structures, specific roles, and IT systems. In these cases, it tends to be effective to start from the big picture and work it down to smaller, more digestible pieces. To further your chances of avoiding hopelessness when facing a massive change, it is also essential to think about to whom you communicate about the change and when. The role of sponsors and celebrating even the smallest of successes are both vital keys for keeping up hope during long change processes.

2. Distress due to change pressure

It is not always easy changing people’s ways of working. Even in a silly comic people want change and may even be open to changing but nobody wants to take the lead. In my work, I’ve noticed how even the most experienced leaders and managers might start feeling distress when faced with the complexity of changing people or ways of working. The employees are also at risk of distress if too much is expected too fast, if vital support is missing or if the concrete impacts of the change for one’s own work are unclear.

Talking is usually an effective cure for distress. Together the leadership team is able to dissect the change into manageable pieces and set realistic goals for each. Usually, as an outsider consultant, I’ve worked closely as the leader´s support- and discussion partner in times of distress or frustration due to the change. One of the upsides to this job is that I’m able to watch over the change storm from the outside, I have the possibility to step back and therefore provide perspective for the customer.

3. Fear of negative consequences due to fearlessness  

In my opinion, one of the greatest obstacles for change is not bringing forth development suggestions, not taking action or not making choices in fear of negative consequences. This is usually visible via silence in meetings, endless pondering over decisions in multiple forums and especially via changes not being permanent. There is also the risk of change resistance growing if people don’t dare to speak up about their worries or if people are not offered the chance to do so. A functional team dynamic and a meeting culture where active participation is encouraged are essential for creating psychological safety.

As Tuominen highlights in her introduction: Don’t fear emotions. Fear silence.

How do you feel about this?