Why People Respond To Change Differently: Obstacles vs Opportunities

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We all interpret and respond to change differently. Some people are excited by change whilst others appear resistant and overwhelmed. Understanding the many different perspectives, emotions and responses to change in ourselves and those around us, brings people together, makes people feel understood and builds energy for change.

Understanding why people respond differently to change starts by understanding the difference between change and transition.

Change and transition are two different things. The difference is subtle but essential.

  • Change is external and what happens to you in your environment even if you don’t agree with it, e.g. a new boss, a change in role or a new IT system.
  • Transition is internal, and it’s how you think about change, engage and respond to it. Change can happen relatively quickly, whereas transition can be a much slower process of adaption.

Transitions are challenging without the impact of others reacting negatively because cognitively you and they are very different. Understanding and recognising these tiny details in each other’s thinking patterns is a skill, a skill that should be learnt and a skill that will impact the performance, wellbeing and communication of all.

Exploring the different perspectives and responses to change by understanding whether you are opportunity or obstacle focused

Assessing the balance of energy that you put into these 5 areas helps you to understand whether you see the opportunities or obstacles at work and how you and others approach risk and ambiguity.

  1. Goals energy
  2. Multiple pathways
  3. Optimism
  4. Fault finding
  5. Time focus

1. Goals energy

Different people put different amounts of energy into setting themselves stretched or challenging goals. Some people naturally like to stretch themselves, others don’t. One person’s idea of a stretched goal is another’s idea of an impossible one, and to someone else, it’s not stretched enough.

Setting stretched goals is a skill, and its benefits include higher confidence and the will to keep going. Critical in the face of change as organisations move from one milestone to the next. Get the stretch wrong, and people begin to disengage with stress, burnout and anxiety. It’s essential to recognise what each individual deems as a stretch, and how it affects their response to change – for some change is too big a stretch, and they suffer, for others it may not be big enough.

Consider:

  • Do you set yourself stretched goals?
  • Does the team have stretched goals?
  • Are you persistent, or do you give up too early?

2. Multiple pathways

Some people put a lot of energy into finding a path around a problem, others less so. Change brings new ways of doing things, and those who put a lot of energy into finding multiple pathways are well prepared for change. They can find a route around a problem and are probably the people who identified the opportunity to “do it differently” in the first place. They are always looking for better ways to do things and enjoy various projects all at once. Change to them is manageable and exciting.

Those people who don’t put much energy into finding pathways around obstacles like to put their energy into similar projects and refer to process and procedure, previous solutions and other people to get their results. For them, a change could remove the mechanism for which they get results. Their strength lies in doing things the same way.

Consider:

  • What do you do when an obstacle arises?

3. Optimism

Optimism explores someones thinking style when they interpret a setback. A key component of thriving during change. It does include both positive and pessimistic thinking, but its primary measure is on how people interpret a setback. We all view setbacks in 3 ways. The setback becomes:

  1. Personal – the fault lies with me “They thought I wasn’t good enough for the job. I have such bad luck.”
  2. Permanent – the impact will be long-lasting. “This always goes wrong, it never goes right”. ‘I’ll never get a job’ – ‘I’ll never be good in interviews.’
  3. Pervasive – adverse events will happen in all areas of my life ‘I didn’t get the job. It will be the same old story if I go for another interview!’

Those with lower optimism levels take longer to bounce back and negative events can blend into each other. This means that change can be taken more personally, become more permanent and blend into other changes. In short they may need more time to process the change and adapt to it.

Those high in optimism can brush through a change far more comfortably than those with lower optimism. This can cause them to come across as flippant and they can respond to others with lower optimism levels still adapting to change with disdain. They can start saying things like:

  • “No-one died get on with it”
  • “You’re fine pull yourself together”

Brush past a change without giving it emotional attention and it will leave some feeling ignored, stressed and anxious. Ignoring people’s levels of optimism means that individuals could be forced to move past setbacks far quicker than they are capable of. They don’t process it properly, and it lingers, while the rest of the team moves on, they are left stuck.

Remember everyone is different and interpret setbacks in different ways – it’s a stance, and a great strength.

Consider:

  • What is in your past that you need to learn from to then move forward?

4. Fault finding

People who have high levels of fault-finding put a lot of energy into looking at what could go wrong, not “how can I make this work”. They see faults, large and small and spend time thinking about how things fail, not how it will succeed. People high in fault finding are not being pessimistic. 

Those who don’t put much energy into fault finding find:

  • people get drawn to them
  • look at how can things work
  • appear excited and positive
  • don’t waste energy on what goes wrong

Those people who put a lot of energy into fault finding want to address the faults when going through change. This strength has to be acknowledged as a strength. If they are ignored, they become frustrated, stressed and won’t buy into the change.

Consider:

  • Does the team spend more time finding fault with one another or their work?
  • As a team, how do we ensure we spend sufficient time and energy to mitigate the risk of making snap judgements?

5. Time focus

Time is subjective and relative to each individual. If we all watch the same programme on Tv for 60 minutes, some people will feel it dragged and felt more like 6hrs others will feel it flew by and felt like 6 minutes. The point being is we don’t all see time the same way, and as a result, we don’t see change the same way either. There are 3 time focus’:

  1. Past – feel safety + security in the past, “they were much better times”.
  2. Present – focus on the present, “this is the time”.
  3. Future – focus on the future, see it clearly and can’t wait to get there “there will be much better times”.

If I asked a room, perfectly balanced with people from all three time focus’ to describe their 1st ever day at work, the past focused people could talk in small intricate details about it. The future-focused people would not have a clue.

So if we relate this to change and take the typical approach that most change custodians take and describe the end state in detail. It’s likely that 2/3 of the audience won’t be able to picture it as their focus is on the past or present – not the future. They will find it distressing and loose focus on what needs to be achieved.

Likewise, only engage and focus on the past and present, and future-focused people will find it distressing. Instead, a history walk can be used to guide people through the change and incorporate everyone’s perspective of time.

The so what; some people are obstacles focused; others opportunity focused.

Where do you or your team focus their energy? On spotting obstacles or spotting opportunities? Recognising who sits in which camp can help you understand why some people react differently to change.

Opportunity focused people think things will always go well, that it could be worse and generally happy with risk. When faced with a challenge or change their first thought is:

“How can I make this work”.

Obstacle focused people put a lot of energy into spotting errors; they are relatively risk-averse. When faced with a challenge or change their first thought is:

“What could go wrong”.

Both have their strengths, but both view change very differently. One can appear negative, one giddy. One sees change as a chance, the other a challenge, which is right, which is wrong? The answer is neither, and it can lead to highly charged and emotive reactions if one is not considered alongside the other or if communications favour only one.

Want to communicate and deliver change effectively?

We all think both logically and emotionally. It’s important to understand that everyone is different and has a different view of the world and what is important to them. We all see obstacles and opportunities differently. It’s not a simple case of the reward outweighs risk as the concept of risk is relative to each person and dependent on circumstance. Want to communicate and lead change effectively, and your focus will switch to:

How do I communicate and manage this change for both obstacle and opportunity focused people?

The real question to ask when communicating change effectively Tweet

For obstacle focused people the, barriers have to be addressed before they can move forward, if they don’t get resolved, then they don’t move forward engaged. They have to work harder to see the benefits of others have to work harder to show them by removing the obstacles. 


For opportunity focused people, they are concerned only with how they can make it happen. They are not interested in what could go wrong. They have to work harder to see the obstacles or others have to work harder to show them.

Obstacle focused:

Do’s

  • Expect them to be initially negative and be prepared to explain why your ideas will work.
  • Be prepared for them to be resistant to change.
  • Ask them to help you examine all the things that could go wrong.
  • Accept that their position might be of value to you and find ways to use their strength.
  • Work hard to change their mind.

Don’ts

  • Don’t focus excessively on the future; show them how your proposals link to the present and past.
  • Don’t be over-excited until you are sure they can see the opportunities you do.
  • Don’t react negatively when they tell you what the pitfalls are.
  • Don’t appear overly optimistic.

Opportunity focused:

Do’s

  • Try to sound positive about their ideas, even if you think they are stupid.
  • Focus on the good part of their proposal before you explain what the difficulties are.
  • Encourage them to describe the changes that might need to be made to implement their ideas.
  • Discuss any obstacles that might arise.
  • Talk with excitement in your voice.
  • Look for the excellent idea.

Don’ts

  • Don’t tell them their idea won’t work. Help them see this for themselves.
  • Don’t dwell on the past.
  • Don’t criticise them personally.
  • Don’t appear negative or lacking enthusiasm.

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