Psychology

Meeting the challenges of change

May 18, 2000
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On the job, we often resist change. New work assignments, locations, or policies threaten the security of our "comfort zones," our routines, and our sense of control. Since change is a constant, occurring all of the time, this article offers guidelines for helping people accept and engage in proactive change.

Let's start by considering four general categories of change:

Incidental changes are daily occurrences that don't have a lasting impact but often tax us in terms of time, stress, and conflict. Perhaps we're going to buy a new brand of detergent. Or take a new route to work in the morning. Maybe start exercising in the morning instead of at night. Even though the consequences may be trivial, we can worry about these decisions. Will the new detergent ruin our clothes? If the change comes without our input or choice -- gridlock is forcing our new way to work -- we feel a temporary loss of personal control, and waste time complaining.

Reactive change is more dramatic and long-lasting, and often follows a crisis. It demands our attention. Doctors, lawyers, counselors, and consultants who help us through crises are considered heroes, and are usually compensated with status, money, and perhaps media attention.

Developmental change occurs as we age. We can't do much about these cumulative changes to our physical appearance and capabilities, yet we certainly worry and frown about it. Some people will vigorously exercise, diet, or undergo cosmetic surgery to try to "control" the aging process. Others seemingly accept the inevitable and "go-with-the-flow." This is healthy from a psychological perspective, but appropriate exercise and stretching can reduce the risk of injury at work or at home. Trying to slow the debilitating effects of aging can have significant safety benefits. This is an example of proactive change.

Things we do to prevent a crisis are classified as proactive. Since it's not always obvious that proactive change programs are necessary, they can often run into resistance. Educators, industry trainers, ergonomic specialists, engineers, and safety leaders who try to facilitate these changes are typically unsung heroes who often receive insufficient resources and attention for their crisis-prevention efforts.

Safety, for example, boils down to asking people to do something for proactive reasons -- to change for reasons that are not immediately obvious. This is a special challenge requiring certain strategies. First, people must become aware of the change, including a rationale for why it is needed. Once convinced, people will change their belief system. Still, you can believe in the values of a change process but withhold your commitment to participate. How do we get commitment? If we give people a choice in how the change process is developed and implemented, we increase their perception of personal control and increase their commitment to contribute to the change. You can read more about the power of personal choice in my June, 1995, ISHN article.

The letters in the word "change" can be used to remember various strategies for facilitating awareness, belief, and commitment in a new safety initiative designed for proactive impact:

"C" for consequences

We act because of the consequences we expect to get as a result. To get people involved in a transformation process, you can readily get buy-in if you can clearly show severe disadvantages of not changing and advantages of changing.

Sometimes the process appears overwhelming, and the benefits are not certain nor immediate enough to motivate participation. This is true of safety initiatives that seemingly detract from production. In this case, it's useful to show that the change is less overwhelming and intrusive than it might seem. Or, you might have overlooked some positive consequences other than the delayed payoff of injury reduction. The next five words suggest strategies for addressing these issues.

"H" for habit

Proactive change usually requires a change in behavior. Of course, we only adjust our behavior through feedback, and often the necessary feedback is not naturally available. Remember that old habits are often difficult to break. So don¹t expect people to demonstrate appropriate behavior change right away, even if everyone expressed buy-in and commitment up front. Sometimes old habits need to be broken. Patience is needed, as well as an ongoing feedback process.

"A" for attitude

People can develop a negative attitude about a change initiative by the very manner in which it is presented. If change comes across as top-down and dictatorial, some people might ³go negative² in order to assert their individual freedom. "I might do what you want, but I don't have to like it. You can't control my attitude."

Opinions about a new safety initiative might be negative at first, but you can facilitate positive attitudes by allowing people choice and a sense of personal control throughout the change process. You also boost acceptance when you address people's needs.

"N" for needs

Buy-in and commitment will come if you show people that their needs are being addressed during the transformation process, and that although the change might be uncomfortable and inconvenient at first, the eventual outcome will be positive on a "need satisfaction scale." It's often necessary to teach people to look beyond their personal and immediate needs and consider the long-term group needs addressed by a proactive change for safety.

"G" for goal-setting

Goal-setting turns a vision for proactive change into action. Remember, though, goals must be specific, motivational, achievable, recordable, and trackable (and the first letters of these words spell SMART, as I discussed in my September, 1994, ISHN contribution). Your vision for an injury-free environment, for example, can't be realized without defining proactive process goals that record and track progress. This is how you document incremental change leading eventually to the major proactive change defined by your vision. And by defining the human needs to be satisfied after achieving your goal you'll motivate involvement in the change process.

"E" for empowerment

People feel empowered to work for proactive change when they have the knowledge and resources to achieve specific goals, feel a sense of personal control over the change process, and expect success from their change efforts. I have discussed these aspects of perceived empowerment in Professional Safety (September, 1994) and in my new book, "The Psychology of Safety" (Chilton Book Company, 1996).

Certain steps can be taken to increase these perceptions. To find out what these are, ask potential participants, "What would increase your belief that this change initiative is not only within your personal control, but that you will make the difference in reaching these goals?"

If the participants perceive they have the necessary information, resources, and personal control to accomplish the proactive goal, they will expect the best and feel empowered to make the change happen.

Proactive change is the most difficult kind of change to bring about because the benefits are usually not immediate nor certain. But the long-term payoff makes it worth pursuing. Just remember, making people aware of the need to change is not enough. They need to believe in the rationale or principles behind the change initiative, and then develop personal commitment to participate. You can achieve this by focusing on the six issues represented by the letters in the word "change."

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