Making Sense of Change

Sometimes things happen in life that leave us devastated. Losing a job, for example. Or losing a loved one. These sudden and drastic changes cause our life structure to disintegrate, leaving us perplexed and gasping for understanding, wondering Why this has happened to us.

As an organizational change consultant, one of my chief influences is the social psychologist Karl Weick who coined the term sensemaking. Making sense of our life experience is a core human activity. We are doing it all the time, but barely notice it. Except for times when things change dramatically.

For example, in the personal realm, look at the loss of a loved one. You spend months dwelling on why it happened. Trying to make sense out of it. But you really never can. Hopefully you subscribe to a belief system (e.g. a religion or a non-religion) that helps you to categorize the loss. So you can move on. And get on with your life.

In the white-water of today's change-filled organizations, sensemaking is in overdrive, as people focus on Me Issues (e.g. What will happen to me?) and dwell upon their worst fears. During change, uncertainty causes stress to rise, and the drain on engagement and productivity can be felt.

What can leaders do?

From a leadership standpoint, when an organization is undergoing change, leaders must recognize the need to help make sense of things, first for themselves and then for others. People want to know: What is changing? Why is it changing? What will it mean to us on a day-to-day basis? How will things here at our company be different once the change is accomplished? How long will this take?

Leaders of change would do well to listen to these deeply felt questions. People are trying to make sense out of what's happening. Empathy and patient communication will go a long way in helping others.

As the change starts to make some sense to us, we can start to accept it and begin the process of re-integration. As Victor Frankl once said, "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

Posted by Terrence Seamon on October 6, 2010. for more tips on change, sensemaking, and leadership visit Terry's website and invite him to speak to your managers.

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