Want Easier Change? Know Your Change Fingerprint™

Short Article by Jacqueline Kappers, M.A., CCA

Imagine your organization has introduced yet another change. Most people agree it’s a change for the better, but our friend Joe doesn’t. He was one of the first ones to support it but now that it’s being implemented, he’s missing meetings, snapping at staff, and rumour has it that he’s been moaning to his team that the old way was better. Getting 100% buy-in and support for any change is unlikely and often unnecessary, but the trouble is, Joe leads one of the teams that are critical to successful implementation. As their team leader, if he isn’t 100% on-board anymore, chances are his team isn’t either and that doesn’t bode well for adoption and integration.

What’s going on here? If Joe knew his Change Fingerprint, he’d be able to answer that question.

Origins

I developed the Change Fingerprint framework while taking a course on non-death loss and grief. I had registered to make sense of a series of profound losses I’d recently experienced and couldn’t seem to bounce back from. The textbook, “Non-Death Loss and Grief – Context and Clinical Implications”, edited by Dr. Darcy L. Harris, discussed the grieving process, a normal physiological process triggered when our brains perceive a loss, especially the loss of predictability, attachment, or control. Grieving allows us to assess and process loss, create meaning around it, and then adapt to a new situation in a resourceful and healthy way.

Everyone grieves because everyone experiences change, and as anyone who is familiar with William Bridges model of transitioning knows, every change begins with loss. How we process loss is unique to the individual. One hundred people can go through the same change and each one will experience it differently. Our grief is as unique to us as our fingerprints and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. That concept gave me a great deal of relief because it meant that there was nothing wrong with me. I wasn’t adapting as well or as quickly as others might to the same change, but that was ok.

I started reading everything related to human change and adaptation which took me on an interdisciplinary journey through ethology, neurology, evolutionary-, and organizational psychology and a whole bunch of other “ologies”. The more I learned, the more excited I got about its potential application to organizational change. The Dual-Processing Model of grief, for example, certainly resembles the Bridges model of transitioning and how employee resistance shows up at work looks like how grief shows up at home. The puzzle pieces began to come together to reveal an unquestionable relationship between change, loss, grief, and employee resistance to change. I concluded that as change practitioners, we’ve been overlooking a crucial step in the change process, and it’s likely costing organizations in several inconvenient ways. The good news is that if we are open to doing change differently, spending a bit more time on creating capacity for change, and challenging a few deeply ingrained cultural attitudes and beliefs, we could make organizational change a lot easier but not exactly an easy fix.

The problem is this: change always begins with loss but we’re not allowing our employees time or space to go through the very human and physiologically necessary process of grieving. In fact, we’re pushing them to adapt and adopt changes while their brains are still trying to make sense of the losses. Consciously they may not even recognize loss because in our “look on the bright side” cultures, we don’t allow for it, but their brains still perceive the loss and trigger a grief response. We could therefore be overlooking one of the major causes of resistance. Perhaps resistance is not to the change itself, but to the loss of the previous state, and the signs of resistance are really the signs of grief.

Unfortunately, neither the word nor the concept of “grief” plays well in the organizational context. We can’t attach KPIs to grief to demonstrate its value; there’s no identifiable ROI for grieving. It’s not something we have room or patience for outside of the context of bereavement. We shy away from it because it’s an uncomfortable process for the griever and uncomfortable to witness for those around them. Even though grieving is a normal and necessary part of living a healthy life, it’s a process we don’t commonly understand or know how to support. How could the concept of grieving be made more accessible for organizations? Renaming grief as “transitioning” and “grieving” as the “adaptive response” would make it more socially acceptable. With handy euphemisms in place, perhaps we’d be more open to learning about it.

That can’t happen soon enough. It seems like more drastic changes are happening more frequently. Without understanding our physiological response to change, it’s sort of like not knowing what that uncomfortable pressure in your lower abdomen means shortly after drinking a lot of water. If you don’t understanding what to do about it or why you would want to, it can lead to rather uncomfortable situations. The same is true for our adaptive process. When it’s triggered, our brains send us signals that something has changed and we have work to do to figure out what that was, why it bothered us, and what we need to do about it. Just like you learned long ago that when you drink, you’ll eventually need to pee, knowing your Change Fingerprint or really, knowing how to grieve, is not a “nice to have” but a “must have” if you value your comfort, relationships, work and activities, and overall health and wellbeing.

What is a Change Fingerprint?

A Change Fingerprint is a framework for transitioning. If you know it, you know the unique signals your brain gives you when it perceives change as well as the specific types of change that bother you and why. You’ll know the unique barriers (that you aren’t even aware of) that prevent you from processing change, and you’ll discover the specific tools that enable you to adapt comfortably. It’s our personal roadmap for dealing with change, especially changes that trigger the adaptive response (grief). Knowing yours, and being aware that others have one too, won’t stop change from happening but it could be the key to making changes easier and more comfortable while at the same time decreasing the cost of change in terms of time, effort, money, overall well-being, and relationships.

How could knowing your Change Fingerprint benefit organizations?

We know that change processes are seldom implemented without a degree of resistance. As change practitioners, we’ve historically handled resistance by creating an army of influencers and change agents to communicate the benefits of the change more clearly so that everyone understands their WIFMs and get on board. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to think creatively about the benefits of a change when one’s adaptive response has been triggered. Amygdala hijack is the brain’s first response to loss of predictability, control, or attachment. That means that the frontal lobe, the part needed to manage our emotions, make decisions, and consider how a change could be personally beneficial, is literally impaired. The signals of a triggered adaptive response look like resistance: deteriorating relationships, stonewalling, absenteeism, presenteeism (disengagement), increased error rates, turnover, unreliability, and productivity. Without being addressed, these lead to decreased capacity to manage and adapt to subsequent changes and increasingly toxic cultures.

While we can’t directly link change to KPIs, we can make inferences, and the cost of ignoring employees’ physiological response to change is high. Think about the cost of replacing our friend Joe, a high performing, well-liked team lead with 12 years’ experience at your organization. Not only do his skills walk out the door, his corporate knowledge, influence, leadership, and professional network leave with him too, plus his departure can hold up the implementation while you look for someone to replace him, and that search and hiring process also costs. Better to spend a little time and money upfront to develop his Change Fingerprint so he can identify what’s really bothering him about the change, address it, and retain a valuable (and expensive to lose) employee.

The process to develop your Change Fingerprint starts with recognizing that you’re human, that humans have a physiological process to adapt to change, and that process is unique to everyone. It requires courage to take a countercultural approach to how we currently “do change”. For example, you’ll need courage to accept that our adaptive response signals are not signs of weakness but normal and healthy responses to change, and to give yourself permission to process rather than suppress them, as is often done in our culture of “toxic positivity”. You’ll need curiosity to learn about the adaptation process and to develop awareness around how change uniquely affects you. Lastly, you’ll need compassion to give yourself to do what you need to do to transition healthily and effectively.

Seven billion people in the world mean seven billion Change Fingerprints. Knowing how you - a unique human being - will respond to change and how you process it can help you be more proactive in managing change for yourself and preserving your relationships with others. As a change management professional or a leader responsible for facilitating or implementing change, the process does add time upfront. The huge payoff however is the time, money, and relationships it saves in the long run by making transitions less uncomfortable, thus lowering resistance. As a result, it creates happier, healthier, and more resilient employees and change-ready organisations with safer, more humanized work environments where people actually want to work. 

What happened to our friend Joe? Joe never got the chance to develop his Fingerprint. He had been responsible for developing the system that the company was now replacing. He’d had given 3 years of his life to it and sacrificed a lot of family time along the way. When the new system was introduced, he stayed another six months and then left the company. When he finally did look at that change through the adaptive response lens, he was able to name the losses around that change, process, and reconcile them. He spoke to the loss of meaning, loss of job satisfaction, lost time, lost connections with his family as well as the loss of the system itself, something he’d been extremely proud of. He hadn’t voiced how he felt at the time because he didn’t want to be seen as not a team player, unprofessional, or weak. He had also genuinely agreed that the new system was much better, so he was himself confused about his resistance to the change. At the end of our session, he let out a huge sigh and spoke of the enormous sense of relief he felt that he’d finally been able to process his experience.

His organization might have kept Joe if they’d used the Change Fingerprint framework.

How many Joes are you willing to lose?   

About our speaker - Jacqueline Kappers  

Jacqueline has wondered about the viability of the impossible, asked inconvenient questions, and stirred the pot in organisations in several countries, over several decades. With a background in organisational development, marketing, adult education, and professional coaching, Jacqueline has created programs, new ways of thinking about old problems, and been a change catalyst for not-for-profits, national and international government organisations, and financial institutions in the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, and Canada. She holds an MA in Organisational Development from the University of Utrecht, is a certified instructional designer, and professional coach. Jacqueline lives in London, Canada, and is often found making music, writing, or in discussion

Members of the Change Management Institute can view the recording of Jacqueline’s full virtual event with the Change Management Institute here.