Surviving Workplace Change - It's not about you...it just feels that way!

career Apr 14, 2018

In my coaching work, I spend a lot of time with my clients focused on work-related challenges. Many times these challenges relate to things that have changed in their work environment, and have therefore made them feel vulnerable, out of control, angry or frustrated. All very understandable, and very human responses to change. We spend a ton of time at work, in our offices, with our colleagues and our teams, and when things shift without our consent or input, the impacts are huge! All that being said, I inevitably find myself guiding my clients back to some fundamental truths. These are what I want to share with you today. While it is true that these types of changes affect us on a very personal level, I want my clients to keep their eye on the bigger picture. The fact that we are likely to experience setbacks in our personal lives or careers is a given. It' inevitable. However, the way you choose to navigate those perceived setbacks is critical!

You have control over your reactions, and this is what I want to focus on today.

Inevitably, organizations have to make tough choices at various times in their life cycle. Layoffs, title changes, supervisory shifts, office moves, building moves, etc. are all things that can rock your world in a big way. These changes to your work life can have a huge affect on you. However, rarely are these things about you. Seriously. They impact you. They make you feel like Satan himself was an active member of your boss’s planning team. However, these types of changes are typically business decisions made in a calculated attempt to improve outcomes, bottom lines, efficiencies, etc.

But, they are not about you. It just feels like they are.

Being the grown up, self-sufficient, accomplished person that you are…the sooner you realize it is not about you, the better you will survive these changes. I know that some of my comments here are going to irritate you, and possibly even offend. I’m ok with that. Think of it as some much-needed tough love. For as much as I am an eternal optimist, and believer in the power of the individual; I am also a pragmatist, and believer in making the most of what you have. Yes, business is personal. I don't deny that. However, at some point, many decisions are ultimately made for business, and NOT personal reasons. I’ve been through, and spearheaded a number of significant re-orgs during my career, and they are indeed painful. They are painful whether you are on the receiving side of the changes, or on the planning and executing side. No sane person gets excited about wreaking havoc on their colleagues, staff and friends. Trust me. No one. That being said, organizations and businesses are like a puzzle. Each piece is a contributing part of the whole, and likely there will come a time when a particular piece becomes the subject of scrutiny and judgment. Judgment about fit, scope, pay, equity, applicability, skill, capacity, etc. This is a healthy and normal exercise, and any good organization worth its salt is constantly engaged in this sort of evaluation, whether formal or informal. The tough part comes when any changes that result from this analysis land squarely in your lap as an employee. That is indeed tough. A move to a new office, a desk that isn’t as nice as a co-worker, a new title resulting from a re-org. These are things that can cause rational, competent, professional people to behave like toddlers whose lollipop was just taken away.

Let me be clear. As an employee, it is not a matter of IF you will encounter things like this. It is a matter of WHEN you encounter them. And then more importantly, HOW you choose to deal with the changes.

It is of course important to feel valued. To feel that your boss, or your organization hears you concerns. And I encourage you to stay connected to your leadership, so that if and when opportunities arise to participate or give input on proposed changes, you are ready and able to do so. That being said, the WAY you provide your feedback is important. Let me say that again, in case you missed it. The way you choose to provide your feedback is critically important! A leadership team or supervisor, or board considering making organizational changes at any level is not going to respond well to being lectured. They are already in the midst of planning, strategizing, and anticipating the things that must happen to execute their plans. They are focused on making what they believe to be IMPROVEMENTS. Put yourself in their shoes. If you go in both barrels blazing to tell them all the ways that their plans are wrong…they are not going to hear you. And they are certainly not going to think more highly of you for bucking the system.

You should choose your response/reactions carefully, for I can assure you that your actions will be both observed, and remembered by your staff, your colleagues, your supervisors and other leaders.

Case in point. As the result of an organization-wide re-org at a large non-profit, Sarah and her fellow Program Directors ended up being re- titled as Program Managers (no longer Directors). Where most of her team took the change in stride, and went on with their work as usual, Sarah (who is the youngest and most inexperienced member of this team) initiated a minor mutiny. She convinced her colleagues to go with her to the Executive Director, and demand that their old titles be re-instated. The group (with Sarah as their spokesperson) said they could not be as productive with what they perceived to be ‘reduced’ job titles. Sarah took great pains to explain that she needed her title in ways that the Executive and Leadership teams couldn't comprehend, as it (the old title) was necessary, and a key component of how she was able to do her work. This claim of needing a title to do one’s job was (in and of itself) a huge red flag for her Director. In theory, capable, experienced people can do their work, no matter what their title may be. Sarah argued that her current partners would not take phone calls from a mere ‘Manager’, that she depended on her Director title to ensure she had a seat at the proverbial table. Again, huge red flag to the Director. A ‘seat at the table’ is earned. It is the result of showing up, of demonstrating knowledge, and of building relationships. A title, in and of itself is not a compelling reason to be at the table, ANY table. And relying on it is a huge mistake. Needless to say, all this kerfuffle about titles caused the Executive Director to shift her focus away from her organization-wide re-org, towards Sarah as an individual employee. When Sarah made such a stink about her title (bringing in co-workers, threatening mutiny and reduced productivity), she focused a spotlight directly on herself (as an individual), her reputation and her contributions to the organization. It was not about her before, but in throwing a literal temper tantrum about the changes, she forced the issue, and it did indeed become ‘all about her’. While Sarah is probably a very capable employee, with important skills and experience. She made some significant errors in judgment in her reaction to her title change. Errors in judgment that will likely follow her and haunt her well beyond her current role. She assumed the change was a demotion. She assumed the change was done to keep her down, that her Executive Director didn’t understand the first thing about her work. And most short-shortsightedly, she complained to anyone who would listen. In trying to get her colleagues to tow the line on her complaints, she drew even more attention to herself (for all the wrong reasons), and was ultimately labeled as a trouble-maker. Does Sarah have a right to be concerned about how a title change will impact her career? Of course she does. However, when a change like this happens as the result of something larger, like a structural change, like a recovery from layoffs, etc., then there are plenty of ways to ensure this does not negatively impact your career. It’s all about the messaging around those changes. Most people in business have been impacted by things like this at some point in their careers, and can relate. Resumes, social media profiles, bios, any sort of professional information about you and your accomplishments can be customized and polished to ensure that changes beyond your control do not negatively impact external impressions of you. But the last thing you want to do, once a decision has been made, is to make yourself the squeaky wheel that just won’t get rolling again.

Once the direction has been set, make the most of it.

Because if you can’t, or won’t, there are plenty of people who can, and will. That is the cold reality of the world. The sooner you appreciate that, the greater longevity you will have in your career. In contrast to Sarah’s reaction to her title change. Let me tell you about Katie. Katie worked as a government employee in a large City department on the West Coast. She was great at her job, and everyone respected her work. However, as the result of a changing Mayoral administration, and newly appointed Director, Katie’s position (formerly a Manager) was impacted by a department-wide restructure. Ultimately Katie became a Sr. Finance Analyst, where she was previously part of leadership. This went beyond a title change, and was a de-facto demotion. Rather than complain, or triangulate co-workers against the new regime, Katie got back to work. She dove into her new role head-first, and made the choice to take advantage of her reduced meeting workload, and fully tackle some large projects that she knew had been languishing. After a short six months, Katie’s contributions on these large projects were noticed. She was recognized by her new Director, and acknowledged for her initiative. She remained a Finance Analyst through the end of that year, and was promoted to Sr. Finance Manager with a team of 5 in the following year. Katie could have mutinied in the initial re-org. She could have made the changes all about her and focused on the injustice of it all.

However, she chose instead to make the most of her new status, and wow, did that pay off.

While changes that impact where you work, the office you work in, the title on your business cards, and who reports to you may hurt... they are rarely about you personally. If you decide to make them all about you, then you will likely contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you are perceived to be a problem in need of a solution. And that is not a good thing. Don’t make it about you. Challenge yourself to make the most of whatever the change might be. Challenge yourself to figure out how it can work in your favor. The loss of a view could mean more time focused on work instead of gazing out a window. The loss of direct reports may mean better, quality attention on your own projects. A new job title may open windows and doors you never imagined. Don’t shut yourself off to the possibilities.

Don’t make it about you.

And what if it turns out that the decision was in fact about you? It does happen, just not as often (I would argue) as people think. Sometimes passive aggressive decisions are made as the result of a supervisor or leader just not wanting to deal with a performance issue. In such instances, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a random change that leaves you scratching your head. If you find yourself reeling from something like this, and you can look around you and see the change has not been made as a part of a larger/institutional shift, then you should indeed be concerned. First, you need to assess your current situation. Think about your recent performance. Have you been on your game? Have there been issues with either your work, or your relationships? Is this something you could have seen coming? Or were you blindsided?

I want to stress the importance of doing some serious soul-searching and analysis before doing anything further.

Very often when we get past the emotional heat of our reactions, we can see that there were warning signs, or hints at something coming. It’s easy to react to the moment at hand, but I want to challenge you to take a deep breath and really evaluate what led up to the change that is impacting you. Be real with yourself before you go off half-cocked in anger or frustration. Did you play a role in bringing about this change? Is moving your office an attempt to limit your socializing? Is redefining your role a way to make you more focused? Were there things you could have done to prevent these changes? Or conversely, are these changes going to be helpful to you in the long-run?

Give yourself a chance to be thoughtful, to be introspective, and to be objective in your analysis before responding or reacting.

If you truly believe you have been treated unfairly, speak to your supervisor, go through your HR department. Take advantage of the tools and resources available to employees in circumstances like this. Unfortunately, there are instances of bias in the workplace. There are individuals in power who abuse their authority. You have every right to defend yourself against situations and people like this. However, my point is that you ought not assume this is the case.

Just because you don’t like an outcome does not make you a victim.

Before you cloak yourself in the comfy cloth of a martyr, make sure you have taken you have fully considered your circumstances. It’s easy to feel victimized when you are myopic in your perspective. Don’t take up the role of a victim, unless you truly are a victim. More likely than not, it's really not about you.  It just feels that way.

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