Change is always a part of life, but it’s safe to say that the entire world is coping with significant change at the moment. We’re all dealing with change and uncertainty in both our personal and professional lives — working from home, caring for children and extended family, and limiting our physical interactions with the outside world. Considering the current climate, developing change agility as a competency has never been more important. 

As a learning & development leader, I’ve given a lot of thought to change agility. While building a change agility workshop for internal Udemy employees, I looked at the neuroscience of what happens to our brains when faced with change and identified skills that people can develop to enhance their change agility. 

When I was first considering how to help employees develop this competency, I originally thought it would be in the context of adjusting to a new manager or company reorganization. However, in the past few months, the changes we are facing have changed dramatically.

To further explain, let’s refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you’re not familiar with the concept, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a pyramid of human needs. The lower levels contain basic physiological needs such as food, sleep, and shelter. The higher levels address self-actualization or the desire to become the most that one can be.

When we first thought about building a change agility training, we were focused on the upper-level needs and changes that happen in one’s life and career. However, quite quickly, our immediate needs have shifted to more of the lower level — making sure we have enough food and supplies, and keeping safe and healthy. If we aren’t resolving earlier needs, we can’t move up the hierarchy, which is why it’s so important to adapt and work through changes we’re facing. 

In this blog, I’ll share a few strategies for developing change agility. While I didn’t anticipate the level of change we’re all experiencing at the moment, the lessons are still applicable. If you’d like to explore more tools for change agility, I invite you to take my course, Change Agility in the Workplace: Become a Change Agent.

Change Agility in the Workplace: Become a Change Agent

Last Updated March 2020

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Become an agent of change by adopting the agility and resilience skills required in the evolving modern workplace. | By Shelley Osborne

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Change in the workplace

I recently came across a quote that resonated with me. Okakura Kakuzo said, “The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings.” I’ve mentioned some of the major readjustments we’ve all been experiencing lately — changes to our work, home, and outside lives. I invite you to take a moment to reflect on some of the changes you and your employees have been experiencing over the past several weeks.

While in the recent past, the scale of change was not what we’re currently facing, change happens in business all the time. In order to adapt to market changes, customer needs, employee growth and attrition, or financial gains and losses, companies (and the people within them) must change. If employees went in to work every day to do the same thing that has always been done, it’s likely that company would not last very long. 

Change is inevitable whether a company is brand new or well established. Organizations often have lifecycles, starting from an idea in someone’s head, to becoming a full-fledged and thriving business, to perhaps shutting down and closing for good. Movement through this lifecycle is highly dependent on the people that make up the organization. The way that employees respond to new circumstances will have an enormous impact on the success or failure of the company. 

Every stage of the business lifecycle has its own unique set of challenges. They are the result of change, and an indication of growth. This is to be expected! If you don’t have problems, you’re likely not changing or growing. You can’t prevent these problems or simply decide to not deal with them. The business will not succeed if you don’t adapt.

And recent events have taught us that it is impossible to control every variable within — and especially outside — your organization. You will not be able to anticipate everything that comes your way, but you will need to be flexible when it happens.

Situational awareness

One of the ways to improve our reaction to change is by boosting our situational awareness. Situational awareness is a method you can use to understand the circumstances in which you and your employees may find yourselves, and is critical to making successful decisions. We usually hear of this concept in the context of an emergency, where someone has to quickly gather evidence from their surroundings to figure out how to respond, but we can relate it to how we react to change as well.

Situational awareness has three levels: perception, comprehension, and projection.

We need to be able to perceive something happening in order to be aware of it. But sometimes, we may not perceive a change until it’s already happening. Perception is all about recognizing the elements of an environment — people, places, events — and their current states. When we’re relating perception to change, it’s important to also think about emotions. 

Comprehension occurs when we make connections between all of the elements and feelings we’ve perceived and begin to see how they fit together. We can start to interpret and evaluate in order to see the impact of the change, and gain a clearer understanding of consequences.

Using the information we’ve perceived and comprehended, we can project what may happen and decide the best route forward. Using patterns we’ve noticed before, we can infer what may happen and react accordingly.

Obviously, no one could have projected the onset of COVID-19, so situational awareness may not serve you in every aspect of life. But in a normal business environment, being aware of what is happening and understanding the significance of these events can help you project what may occur as you spot patterns in your organization’s behavior.

The five stages of change

Part of being aware of your surroundings in change is understanding your emotions while experiencing it. Emotion in the face of change is a given — you will feel one way or another when faced with both good and bad change. And whatever you’re feeling is completely valid. There’s no right or wrong way to feel, but understanding what your emotions are and why you’re feeling them can ground you as you work through change.

You may have heard of the five stages of grief — a framework that explores the emotions we experience when dealing with a major loss or disappointment. It turns out that the five stages of grief are comparable to the feelings and experiences we have when facing change. In fact, a recent article in Harvard Business Review, That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief, explored this topic in detail.

The five stages are:

1. Denial 

2. Anger 

3. Bargaining

4. Depression

5. Acceptance

Acknowledging the phases and identifying where we are in the experience is important. This is why many leaders recommend beginning conversations by checking in with your employees and giving them the opportunity to share how they’re feeling. At Udemy, we’ve adapted a work from home canvas to help managers have these critical conversations with their direct reports. You can learn more about the work from home canvas and other tactics we’ve put in place in our Udemy Connect miniseries.

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It’s important to note that the way we move through these stages is not always linear. It’s very common for people to get stuck in one stage for a while, or to move on to the next stage only to go back to the previous phase. You may also skip some of the stages altogether! But the way we eventually reach acceptance is by analyzing and articulating how we’re feeling.

In this post, we’ve explored the idea of change in the workplace (and in the world) and why it’s crucial to develop change agility. I also touched on how important it is to be aware of change as it’s happening and to understand your emotional reactions in order to move through it. To explore more strategies you can use in times of change, check out my course, Change Agility in the Workplace: Become a Change Agent.

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Page Last Updated: May 2020