Coping With Change

Managing Your Emotions and Expectations

Changes ahead sign

Learn how to cope with workplace changes.

© iStockphoto/kWaiGon

He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery. – Harold Wilson, British politician

How much change have you experienced in the last year?

Perhaps you've had to learn a complicated new software system. You may have taken on new team members, or a new role. Or you might have gone through a merger or an acquisition.

Change is routine in today's workplace. And, no matter what you do, you probably can't – or shouldn't – try to stop it. However, you can choose how you react to it.

If you can embrace and cope with change, you'll be valued highly in your organization. You'll be seen as a flexible and adaptable team player, and this reputation can open up many opportunities. If, however, you consistently resist change, you'll be seen as "part of the problem," and you'll get left behind.

In this article, we'll look at why coping with change is so important, and we'll discuss a framework that you can use to deal with it more effectively.

The Importance of Coping

So, what is coping? One formal definition says that it's a "process by which an individual attempts to minimize the negative emotions that arise from the experience of negative events." Another defines coping as "cognitive and behavioral efforts to deal with experiences that tax or exceed one's resources."

Put simply, coping describes the way that we think about and deal with stressful events.

Importantly, it's often your attitude towards change that determines your emotions and your experience of it. Some people view change positively, and see it as an exciting opportunity to learn and grow. Others see change negatively, as something to fear and to avoid.

It's important to know how to cope with change, because there's so much of it about. Organizations are continuously shifting, growing, downsizing, merging, and acquiring people and resources. Developments in technology mean that we need to learn new ways of working and communicating. We also need to know how to cope with smaller changes, such as getting to know a new team member, or learning new standards in a particular industry.

People who resist change will likely find themselves overlooked for important projects, passed over for promotions, or left behind entirely. The inability to cope with change can also lead to great stress, and other negative physical and psychological effects.

How to Cope with Change

Change can bring amazing opportunities, or it can bring defeat. It can lift an entire team up, or it can lead people to find other employment.

Researchers Mel Fugate, Angelo J. Kinicki, and Gregory E. Prussia argue that there are two major types of coping strategies: "control coping" and "escape coping."

"Control coping" is positive and proactive. You refuse to feel like a victim of change, instead you take charge and do whatever you can to be part of the solution, including managing your feelings.

"Escape coping" is based on avoidance. You experience thoughts and emotions, or take specific actions, that help you avoid the difficulties of change. For instance, you might deliberately miss training classes, or show up too late to attend a meeting about the upcoming change.

People can use both strategies simultaneously when coping with change. However, as you can imagine, control coping is the best option to choose, because it puts you in a position of positive control. Here, you proactively search for a way to be a part of the solution, instead of reacting to, and avoiding, the change.

Transactional Model of Stress and Coping

So, how can you put yourself in control?

Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman give us a useful way of doing this with their "Transactional Model of Stress and Coping". You can use this simple approach to look objectively at the change situation you're experiencing, and analyze what you can do to respond to it effectively.

There are three stages in this model...

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