Learning and Change Management

The fearful reactions to change are well known, but is it possible that some of the fear stems from having to learn, not from the changes themselves?

Don’t you love it when someone comes along and throws a monkey wrench into your daily work?  In the work world, the person throwing the wrench is often someone “from the top”.  Now, it’s up to you to implement the changes and make them work. Anyone involved in corporate or adult education is familiar with the fallout this top-down model of change implementation causes, because we are often the ones who are walking right into the middle of it.  The reaction is generally not good, and although it runs the gamut from hostility to acceptance, it tends to cluster into certain camps.  For illustrative and comedic purposes, I’ll take one of the best parody movies of all time (the iconic Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks) as an example.

The Pitchfork Crowd

A riot is an ugly thing...and I think it is just about time we had one!

A riot is an ugly thing…and I think it is just about time we had one!

The Pitchfork Crowd is usually the first to make its presence known when you walk into the room to begin training.  These are the folks who are, to put it mildly, unhappy that they are being forced to change.  They feel disrespected by their managers who gave them “No say” in this process or decision, and your very presence as a trainer of the new processes or methods is enough to make them hostile and angry.  You are their resentment and fear personified, and they are going to react to you with all of the anger and frustration they feel.

The Stoics

Frau Blucher

Then I will say good night, Herr Doctor.

The Stoics are just as their name implies.  They often feel just as disrespected by the change as the Pitchfork crowd, but they know that anger is useless.  They simply want to get on with their lives as quickly as possible, and while they generally won’t stand in the way of the change implementation process, they won’t do much to help it along either.  They may not be advocates for the change, but they can often be leveraged to assist with others who are struggling.

The Fearful Villagers

The Fearful Villagers

Let me out! Let me out of here!

“Wait…we are changing?  No no no…we can’t do that!  I barely know how to do things now!  How am I ever going to learn a new system?!”  The Fearful Villagers are in the full grips of a panic attack at the thought of changing anything about their current workflows or processes.  Even getting past the change implementation phase and all of the disruption that will cause, they are terrified that they will never be able to fully adapt to the change; as a result they mentally shut down, insisting that they cannot handle it.  Bringing calm to the situation can help you ease the stress.

The Change Advocates

The Change Advocates

Oh, I’m so happy to meet you at last!

These are your biggest supporters.  They were normally either actively involved in the decision to make a change, or they were so frustrated with previous systems/methods/procedures that they can’t wait to see the backside of them.  But danger can lie within their enthusiasm. Their hopes are so high that it is almost impossible to fully please them, and one crack in the wall can bring the whole thing tumbling down. They are your biggest cheerleaders and can help you navigate both the training and working with the other camps.

As a trainer, you will experience all of these emotions and more as you work to prepare the staff for the changes that are being implemented.  This makes you far more than a “glorified teacher” as some have described it.  Deftly handling the dangerous waters of change implementation is something that requires a wide range of skills, because the people you are working with have been pushed beyond their comfort zones.  And when that happens…hang on to your hat!

I got some new perspective on this while reading an article by leadership consultant and author John Baldoni’s on the Association for Talent Development website.  The article is titled Take the Fear out of Learning and posits that one additional reason people are fearful of change is because they are fearful of learning.  But unfortunately one cannot change without learning, and so you must do what you can to minimize the fear in any way you can.  John points out that one of the best ways to do this is to have management actively involved in and modeling the changes that are being implemented.  Management must embrace the process, teach what they know and be humble about the changes that are being made.  Above all, he says, they must be engaged in the process, and not in an abstract, we-support-this-with-a-vote type of way.  I have both seen and experienced how much easier it is to accomplish great changes when management (or the Board of Directors) is actively supportive of the change and the processes involved to bring the change to fruition.

What interested me more is this idea of part of the fear of change stemming from fear of learning.  As a professed lifelong learner who has been active in the educational arena for nearly a decade, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that the thought that someone could be fearful of learning, not just the change process itself, had never occurred to me.  It has given me much to think about in relation to my position and methods as an educator and agent for change.  Do you think John Baldoni is on to something?  Have you experienced working with people who are fearful of learning?  What tips and tricks did you use to dial down the fear factor?  Use the comment box below to share your ideas!

  1. […] experience working with all of the stages of grief, as I explained in this previous post examining learning’s impact on change management.  Understanding how and why people and businesses forms habits can better prepare anyone working […]

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  2. […] work on Software Conversion Projects, and I’ve blogged about some tips for it in this post on Software Conversions as told by Young Frankenstein. Watching Tyrion navigate the Game of Thrones provides excellent examples of how being skilled at […]

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