Though some leaders blunder blindly into organizational change efforts, many leaders think long and hard before a change initiative is launched. Much time and energy is generally given to pondering and planning the what, when, who, and why of a change effort. A communication plan and a stakeholder analysis are stock checklist items in the change leader’s arsenal. Recognition and reward systems may be targeted to key milestones in the change implementation plan. Contingencies are considered. Process adaptations and changes to standard work are drafted.

Change leaders know to expect resistance. Every book, speech, webcast, and private conversation regarding change touches on the topic of resistance to change. And, in planning for change, many leaders take time to think through who loses what and how those who feel losses can be made to feel whole again. The organizational implementation plan is comprehensively scoped to attend to head, heart, and behavioral aspects of the change. Finally, the change plan is ready.

The reality is that the change leader often will also experience a bit of loss and therefore personally struggle with organizational changes. But the change leader has the whole planning period to work through individual intellectual and emotional reactions. By the time the launch rolls around, those involved in the planning have reconciled any personally troubling aspects of the change by either reaching a level of acceptance or perhaps even influencing the plan for a more palatable outcome. In other words, those change leaders involved with planning a change initiative have a long running start at both influencing and being at peace with the change. Any hesitance has given way to excitement. “Let’s get this show on the road!”

So, it’s launch day. Change leaders know that resistance can be expected but surely it won’t take that long for everyone to get on board! After all, it’s a worthy change and a great change management plan!

Discombobulation (noun):  the condition of being confused, disconcerted, upset, or frustrated.

And then reality hits. The staff seems stunned. The organizational fabric begins to come unglued.  The employees at large discombobulate. And how does organizational discombobulation look? It can look like confusion, aloofness, anger, fear or even resistance. In general, things seem to have disassembled and gotten stuck in that state.

At this point, change leaders need to draw on deep reserves of patience. Leaders must remember that the staff must be viewed and met where they are emotionally and intellectually, not where the leaders are. Leaders must remember that early start on the change that they have had and have empathy for those who are just now learning about it.

Recently I was traveling through the Milwaukee airport. Once through security I began to put my shoes and coat back on and reassemble my belongings. I looked up and laughed at the sign hanging over the area. It read Recombobulation Area.


This struck me as a metaphor for a key role that change leaders must play in an organizational change effort. Change leaders must provide adequate space and time for recombobulation. Team members need time to sit a bit with the change and reassemble their worlds. They need time to contemplate how the change will personally affect them. They need space to mentally and emotionally try on the change.

Recombobulation (noun):  the act of putting things back in order and removing confusion.

And what can change leaders do to help provide this time and space for recombobulation? The necessary leader activities are listed below.

  1. Communicate the vision of the change with truth and transparency
  2. Humbly ask for input and questions
  3. Listen non-defensively and incorporate feedback as possible and helpful
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 over and over and over and over

In other words, the what, how, who, and why of the change needs to be clear (step 1). However, the majority of recombobulation happens as people are respectfully and humbly asked for their input and reactions (step 2) and are listened to as they talk things through for themselves (step 3). Again, patience is required as the process is repeated so that the staff is supported through the change. Some staff members will recombobulate quickly, but others will need a bit more time to sort it through.

It is true that there is a time to say that the plane is boarded and the cabin door is closing. All must be on or be left behind. It behooves the change leader to think carefully about whether or not the time to shut the cabin door has arrived. Patience must at some point give way to progress, but only after giving sufficient time for recombobulation.

Summary questions for change leaders:

  1. Am I dealing with others from the view of where I am rather than where they are?
  2. Am I giving others enough time to recombobulate?
  3. How can I better humbly ask for input and listen to the concerns of others being affected by change?
  4. What might I communicate as early as possible to give others more time to work through change?

How can I best decide when it is time to move on with change and do this with empathy for the journey of others?

Blair Nickle, Senior Manager for Lean Healthcare and Process Improvement at HPPToday’s blog was written by Blair Nickle, Senior Consulting Director with HPP.

Blair brings more than 30 years of experience in the healthcare industry. She began her career in the nuclear utilities industry where she worked in information systems deployment, document control, and systems improvement. Blair left that industry as the Corporate Manager of Leadership Development for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Her areas of expertise and professional skills include performance measurement and improvement methodologies, information systems implementation, strategic planning and deployment, and project management. Blair is also an educated and experienced instructional designer and master trainer, having developed numerous performance-based training programs and trained novice trainers to a high level of competency in delivering educational offerings. She has consulted with hospitals, integrated health systems, physician group practices, payer organizations, and pharmaceutical companies across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Blair holds both a Master of Business Administration degree and a Master of Science in Library and Information Science degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee. Her undergraduate work was performed at Emory & Henry College.

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