Managing Change In the Workplace: Lessons From Snakes and Shocks

by James McDonald on December 4, 2018


Why are movies like Paranormal Activity so effective at instilling fear? Because unlike Friday the 13th and other horror films, there’s no ominous music to warn the audience something bad is about to happen.

The uneasiness comes from the viewer being hyper-aware something could happen at any moment and realizing they have no idea what it might be.

Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable because it’s the result of perceiving a lack of control over a situation. And when you’re managing change in the workplace, remember that it’s not so much the change itself that’s scary for employees—it’s the uncertainty around that change.

How do we know? Read on to learn more about the shocking experiment that proves it.

Why Uncertainty Causes Stress

Two years ago, researchers at the University College London Institute of Neurology decided to examine the relationship between environmental uncertainty and stress responses.

In the study, volunteers were shown a photo of a rock on a computer screen and asked to predict whether or not there was a snake under it. The next screen would show one of two outcomes: snake, or no snake.

When a snake was present, the volunteer received a small electric shock on his or her hand. Nothing extreme, but certainly unpleasant. Over the course of the experiment, participants would start to guess correctly more often. However, the scientists designed the game so the odds of snake versus no snake were constantly changing. Therefore, volunteers were unable to permanently reduce the level of uncertainty.

What researchers found is that how certain a participant felt about the outcome had a direct correlation to their stress level. So for example, say in one particular round, there was definitely a snake under the rock, which means the volunteer was definitely going to receive the shock. If the participant was 100 percent certain the snake would appear, their level of stress would register lower than if they weren’t sure whether or not a snake was present. The volunteers actually felt less stress when they knew they were going to be shocked, simply because they were confident about the outcome.

“It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t,” said Archy de Berke, lead author of the study.

When we know what the result of a situation will be, we can prepare. Even if the result is going to be unpleasant, we can still get ourselves emotionally (or physically) ready for it. But when we don’t know the potential consequences, we can’t protect ourselves, so we become tense and anxious.

Managing Change In the Workplace: Key Takeaways for Leaders

If your company is implementing a change in the workplace (for example, moving from assigned seats to an agile work environment), it could be for a number of reasons. Often it’s a decision that management believes will maximize profitability or productivity. Sometimes it’s a consensus among the larger workforce. And sometimes it’s due to factors beyond anyone’s control.

Whatever the reason, change is difficult and the impact isn’t always positive for everyone. Even under the best of circumstances, there are growing pains.

Effectively managing change in the workplace requires not only addressing the fear of change but also eliminating the uncertainty an impending change can create. Some employees may be worried the new workplace design will negatively affect their productivity, for instance.

Vik Bangia, managing principal at Verum Consulting, has helped dozens of companies manage change through the years.

His advice is to start with the truth (which is what verum means in Latin.)

Bangia even uses the word verum as an acronym for the steps he takes to help workplace leaders managing change:

5 Steps for Managing Change In the Workplace

  1. Validate assumptions. Be aware of inherent biases and constraints that might lead to challenges.
  2. Eliminate obstacles. Label the issues that will derail you from achieving your desired outcome.
  3. Re-cast expectations. Revise earlier strategies to elicit deep personal commitments, support and accountability from team members. (A big part of this is communicating with employees to make sure they understand how this change fits into the bigger picture.)
  4. Unveil a new strategy. Once the team is committed to the vision, it’s time to develop tactical plans for implementing it.
  5. Manage implementation. Help your team stay focused as they move forward. That includes providing updates and gathering feedback from employees.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to ensure employees are acutely aware of what to expect before, during and after the change. Fewer details create more uncertainty, which equals greater stress. Be as transparent as possible about why the change is being made, and invite employees to share their concerns so you can openly address them, rather than allowing these worries to snowball. Most importantly, ensure employees know they will have the support of their supervisors throughout the process.

Whether it’s eliminating assigned seats or restructuring entire departments, the more honest and open you are, the easier it will be to overcome resistance to change. 

Want more expert advice on managing change in the workplace? Watch our recent webinar featuring change management expert Andrea Sanchez! 


James McDonald

James McDonald is a sports enthusiast, brother in Christ and once swam in a tank with the infamous TV sharks.

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