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How angst can defeat change processes and how to deal with it.

Anxiety is infectious in certain situations. In a crowd, if one person suddenly looks terrified, other people will panic too. Everyone becomes frightened for no logical reason except the first person had a look of fear on his face. Scientists have studied this phenomenon: cortisol levels (which cause stress) increase by up to 40% in such situations. That’s a massive stress increase. It is also the source of so much inefficiency in organisations.

When angst is let loose and flows uncontrolled, the group dynamic is full of fear and uncertainty. And that paralyzes group performance.

So anxiety and angst lead to negative outcomes. In fact, they are so infectious that their presence alone can destroy any organisational change process.

When post-merger success gets derailed by angst from other business functions

I am worked one company as it went through a merger of equals. Part of the merger strategy was to create a shared services business unit. I worked with the IT function, which had two location in the USA and one in Europe.

Both companies – pre-merger – had been doing well. In this case, a merge of equals creates its own challenges: no dominant partner, which you usually see when there is one buyer or when one function is obviously weaker than the other. Luckily, the IT function was led by two strong, confident, agile directors on either side of the Atlantic. They quickly created a clear strategic purpose, priorities and structure. Three months later, not all the internal processes were clear, but IT’s integration way ahead of other internal functions. But then things started to go wrong.

The real challenge were the other shared services functions – finance and personnel. They were increasingly worried that they are falling behind. In one location, instead of dealing with their slow integration, middle-ranking finance managers (subconsciously) put their worries and angst onto middle managers in the IT function, by doubting. The finance managers would question if the IT managers knew what they were doing. If the IT managers showed the slightest bit of uncertainty or ignorance, the finance managers slowed everything down, on the basis that the company had to be sure. The sub-text: until now the IT managers had just been lucky.

The result: the IT middle managers listened to their colleagues in finance and started worrying that the IT department had more problems that it did. The IT middle managers lost focus and held their own teams back. In short, the finance managers were putting the whole integration process at risk.

Does this sound familiar?  It should do. Because hundreds of change processes get weakened by managers taking on other people’s angst. So how to stop it happening in your organisation?

#1 Deal with the angst immediately and directly.
Talk to the middle managers. Tell each manager, if he hears rumours or speculation from other departments, his first response should be to talk to you. Talk to the directors in other functions too, and tell them the same.

#2 Create communication channels for employees to let out their fears.
Accept that other functions might be jealous. Use team meetings to regularly talk about it. But avoid arrogance towards other functions and avoid complacency in your change process.

#3 Change is an emotional process AND a rational process.
Make sure your managers and employees not only understand this but know how to live with it. Frequent discussions (see #2) help change initiatives to stay on track.

#4 Get your people to stay calm and focus on their tasks.
Because once the other functions feel worried or jealous, their primary aim is to make your function worried. Why? It justifies the negative emotions they had in the first place. Stop this circular logic by getting your people to stay calm. One of my favourite mottos for change processes is, “Relaxed concentration is the name of the game”. Feel free to use or adapt it for the people you lead.

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RS Senior Director

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