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The emotional side of change

“Any change, even a change for the better,

is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.”

Arnold Bennett


Man_changing expressionsYou’ve probably heard the saying “Leave your emotions at the door.” 

The saying implies a hierarchy of fact over emotion and further implies that the workplace is no place for emotions. Although it’s difficult to trace the exact roots of the saying, it’s possible that it arose during the Post-Enlightenment period of Taylorism—a time when theorist Frederick Taylor viewed employees as machines that could be studied for time and motion efficiency and tweaked or tuned to maximize output.  The view at the time was that the scientific method was absolute and would eventually perfect a process if applied consistently.

Since that time, management and leadership theory has evolved to incorporate the humanity of humans.  Some residual strains of the theory continue to prevail.  “Leaving one's emotions at the door” is one such strain. The truth is that the more we know about the science of the human brain, the more we’ve learned that it’s not only impossible to separate a human from his or her emotions, it’s not even desirable.  Eliminating the capacity for emotion would serve to destroy the same motivation, passion and interest that leaders covet and credit for success in reaching goals.

In the mid-sixties, researchers Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe concluded that all change—good and bad—takes an emotional toll due to the transition it requires. They found that even when the change is a good thing (like the birth of a child or a promotion), letting go of old expectations, habits and patterns and moving through the uncertainty of transition can be frightening, confusing, and ultimately correlated to higher risk of illness.

Leaders who dismiss or underestimate the emotional response people have to change or believe that they need only provide the logic to “make the case” for the change are destined for change results that fall far short of goals. 

4 Tips for Handling the Emotional Impact of Change

The important thing to remember is that change does exact a significant emotional toll which cannot be underestimated or ignored. The type of emotions can run the gamut from anger to sadness to confusion to denial and everything in between.  As you build your skills for leading change, do the following:

1. Validate the emotional process of change. Reassure people that their emotions are normal. Model this by talking about your own emotional reactions to the transitions. It will speak volumes when they see that you too struggle with the feelings of sadness and loss.

2. Pay attention to the ways individuals deal with their emotions. Some people will want to talk about them over and over and over. For them, talking about their feelings helps make sense of them—as though getting them “out in the open” provides for a type of verbal organization process. Others will need time to retreat into their own reverie of solitude to think things through and process their feelings internally. Expect variety and provide opportunities for people to process their emotions in a variety of ways.

3. Recognize (and communicate to others) that energy and morale levels will be lower during the change process as people’s emotions get redirected toward assimilating the change. Energy and morale will return if you manage the process effectively. You will have to be patient.

4. Remember to take care of yourself (and others) before you and/or they think it’s necessary. Often, competent professionals report that they feel “fine” (and therefore not in need of pampering, decompression or relaxation) until they reach maximum stress levels that precipitate a crisis. 


I wholeheartedly agree with you, Rowena. A great way to understand the emotional side of change is Dr. William Bridges' work on change and transition. He identified and explained the transition response to change long before most people did. Thanks.

Thanks for your comment Kevin. We couldn't agree more. The work of Dr. Bridges has been significant in helping all of us challenge the way we view and experience the process of change. His work is a highly recommended read.

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