The Make it Great guy, Phil Gerbyshak, recently posted on change in the workplace and asked what we thought people's natural response to change is:
What do you think about change in your organization? Do you believe folks thrive on change or do you think folks are programmed to hate change?
My response is a Holtzian "it depends." Each person has a unique relationship with change and with the idea of change, and a lot of the programmed response is generational. Last week, I wrote about generational differences in the workplace and talked about Barbara Braunstein's approach to these differences in her audio series, Dealing with Different, Diverse and Difficult People. The stereotype that people are afraid of change is relevant for a reason in the same way that all stereotypes are; it's based on a seed of truth. But why do we fear change, really?
As Ms. Braunstein points out, people's attitude toward change varies with their upbringing and the major events that influenced their lives. For example, Radio Agers (those born before 1946) grew up having experienced the Great Depression, either in real time or in its shadow afterwards. They can have a scarcity mentality, and they can bring that scarcity mentality to the workplace. They might fear change for a good reason: this huge influencing event taught them that when things change, they change for the worse and stay that way for a long time. They learned that when jobs are lost, they might stay lost for years on end. In short, Radio Agers have damn good reasons for fearing change.
This is not to say that they can't change; they can. However, if you're asking a Radio Ager to change, you might use words like "slight shift" or "tweak" instead of "major overhaul." Radio Agers deal best with change in small steps; a massive overhaul is hugely threatening to them. Remember, too, that Radio Agers were brought up with values of loyalty and respect for authority. If it's some young 22-year-old fresh out of business school who is giving the company a facelift, a Radio Ager might feel like his own loyal, long-term contributions to the company aren't being valued.
If, however, a Generation X'er (born between 1964 and 1976) is asked to change, you'll probably find that she will embrace it wholeheartedly. She might ask what you're trying to accomplish with the change or which direction you want to go in. Generation X'ers grew up with television and watched its messages change over the years. They grew up watching their parents promise to be together forever and then fall victim to the 64% divorce rate. They lived through the dot com bubble and saw promises of permanent riches fall by the wayside. They watched their parents work their whole lives, promising themselves to play later, when they retired, and then saw their parents pass away before they got the chance to enjoy their lives. Generation X'ers do not believe in permanence; if you try to tell them the company will never change, they'll balk at the idea or roll their eyes.
If you've seen the musical Avenue Q, this is the musical of Generation X. If you want to understand Generation X, go see this show, and you'll walk away understanding the motivations, ennui and belief system of this generation. The musical ends with "It's Only for Now," a song devoted to the celebration of change and non-permanence in the universe. Your hair? It's only for now. George Bush? It's only for now. Your job? It's only for now.
Yes, your job. Generation X'ers won't believe you if you promise them ten years in the company. So if you go in with a message of change, you'll probably have more Gen X'ers on board than if you proclaimed the opposite. If every Gen X'er doesn't embrace change, they at least do recognize its powerful force in their lives and have come to accept it with a type of fatalism.
So it does depend. What have your workers already lived through in their lives? That will tell you how they approach change.