Change Can Mean Loss

Apr 04, 2012 4 Comments by

Change Agent Tip #26

A wise man once told me that one reason people struggle with change is that it often means we’re going to lose something.

It’s Personal: Consider the last time you were impacted by a significant change at work (or in life). You may have been asked to give up something in the process. The loss may have involved experiences like:

  • Abandoning a well-understood way of doing something that you had grown very comfortable with over time.
  • No longer being able to perform a task or process that you had invested considerable time in learning. You’d finally figured it out and were darned good at.
  • Throwing out something that you had a part in creating – so the loss was personal because you contributed directly to the current way of doing things.
  • The change may have involved asking you to give up something that brought you great pleasure – like directly interacting with customers. (…especially if you are a “people person” or a social extrovert!)
  • The transition may have required you to give up something that you had been recognized for doing well in the past. You may have been the expert that people called upon for help – and being able to provide that help made you feel quite useful.
  • Perhaps the thing you were being asked to give up wasn’t all that important to you – but being asked to change was going to add complexity to your life – so you were at least going to contribute some extra time and effort during the transition.

Uncover the Loss Factor: When I coach Change Agents, I encourage them to do a little loss-related digging before they implement change. Start by asking a few questions of the stakeholders who will be most impacted by your change:

1. Who? Where?  Who will be losing things like those described above?  Who may not be impacted at all? What teams, departments or business processes are more impacted than others?

2. What?  What specific losses should they expect? (Make sure these elements of the change are included in your communication, training, and other preparatory activities.)

3. How?  Exactly how will things be different? What new things will replace old things?

4. Why?  Is there a solid rationale for the changes, or will some of the changes simply have to be made “for the greater good”? (People can only be asked to “suck it up” a few times before they decide to put off adopting new things as long as they can!)

Sometimes we have no choice when it comes to losing things… But we do have a choice about how we will deal with it!

5. When? Will the timing of this change result in any impacts on people’s schedules or daily routines? Will it force changes to vacations, working hours or employee social habits?

6. Are You OK?  Finally, ask your stakeholders how clear the communication and expectation-setting has been from their frame of reference.  Does everyone know where to go for answers? Will people have enough lead time to prepare? (Consider the negative impacts if they have little or no time to prepare for the loss.)

Deal With the Grief: Help people cope with the loss component of your change. Here are a few tips that have worked for me in this regard:

1. Acknowledge the loss: It’s OK to spend a little time working through the aspect of loss. Allow people to describe their sacrifice in personal terms and help them identify what specific emotions they are feeling. Encourage them to talk with others and discuss their concerns in ways that draw others into the process so individuals don’t feel as if they are the only ones dealing with the challenge it represents. If it helps, allow them to take a little memento of the past along with them… For example, in one technology upgrade project, we disassembled an old piece of the equipment and gave people “trophy parts” which we “autographed” for each other with an engraver. …I still have that 15 inch hard disk platter hanging in my office…

2. Recognize that individual reactions may vary. No two people are the same and no two change impacts will be exactly the same, so allow people to work their way through the “grieving process” at their own pace (within limits of course!).

Dealing with loss can be a tug-of-war for anyone. It may help to coach people though the process of identifying and appreciating positive elements of the new way things will be done as a way of accounting for the things they are losing. This “crosswalk” exercise often helps stakeholder see that the overall impact of the change is actually positive and some of the best parts of the future state will only be available if they fully let go of the past.

3. Empathize without commiserating. Listen with an open mind. Truly hear the concerns people have and don’t disrespect the past they are mourning. (Remember, they may have had a part in creating it!)

Anyone who’s worked with me in a client setting knows that commiserating is a pet peeve of mine! It’s OK to facilitate people’s adoption process – but it is not OK for a Change Agent to pile on and agree with the negative side of change resistance. It just makes it harder for the other Change Agents to pick up your mess and carry the load of helping your people adapt.

4. Communicate with an emphasis on the future. One way to help people come to grips with the new world order that no longer includes the things they lost is to walk them through a process of envisioning a future for themselves. Remind them of specific elements that will be part of their future.

Don’t avoid the impending reality – or let them pretend it’s not going to happen. Just be consistent and upbeat as you repeat core elements of the change and ask them how they plan to adapt.

This doesn’t mean hammering them over the head with it until they submit. It means asking them to describe ways that they may be able to perform in light of their new reality.  Ask them to describe how others have been able to adapt.

Summary: Not all change is uniformly positive or clearly negative for all impacted people. As a Change Agent, it can be a good practice to at least look into the possibility that the change you are bringing about may result in the loss of some very important things for some of your stakeholders.

Note that what I’ve described above is not meant to be a hand-holding exercise, but rather a way to walk people through the process of acknowledging their loss, coming to terms with it and creating their own positive, productive future by envisioning it for themselves.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What can happen if people get “stuck” in the grieving process and never fully let go of the past?
  2. Have you seen any Change Agent techniques that have been particularly helpful when stakeholders are dealing with the loss of a well-worn process that they are very comfortable with? Click the <comment> link below to offer your feedback.


Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

4 Responses to “Change Can Mean Loss”

  1. steve says:

    Thanks for the additional info and clarifications Tasha! I agree that this communication is often ignored (or not made a high enough priority) resulting in legitimate concerns being labelled as “resistance…

    Thanks for your point as well Joe.
    I did an article a while back on how Change Agents need to be aware of the different pace at which people adapt to change… This natural difference in adaptability is also confused at times for “resistance”.

    Hi Gordon, In fact I’ve seen the concept of “change being viewed as loss” in dozens of articles, presentations and change management courses. The friend I refer to in the post is actually a psychologist who guides org change… My posts typically refer more to my experiences than to any particular reference. Thanks for the link – I had not heard of them, but I have since visited the William Bridges site and their stuff looks great.

    Finally to your point Raiko: Yes, that is exactly what I’m imploring Change Agents to consider. Considering your change from the frame of reference of different stakeholders should yield different answers to the tradeoff question; “What Does This Mean For Me?”.

    Thanks everyone for the great inputs! -Steve

  2. Raiko (via LinkedIn) says:

    By this definition of loss everyone will lose something when there is any change. It is therefore essential to assess the significance of the losses and address the most significant ones. Another side of the same stakeholder coin is “what’s in it for me? Why should I put time and effort (often over and above my regular job) to make the change?”.
    People are concerned about what they lose only if they don’t understand what they gain, ie the tradeoff. Any transition plan must therefore take into account benefits as well as losses and communicate these to the stakeholders.

  3. Joe (via LinkedIn) says:

    It’s not the “change”….it is the transition that causes challenges for people whether it be loss, or resistance to accept a new process/function, etc. It is actually easy to change but the transition of accepting the change and doing it is the hard part…and we all transition at different speeds.

  4. Tasha (via LinkedIn) says:

    Good reflections on an often neglected, and critical, part of the process. I also find that helping people hear each other when they talk about the losses is very useful — done well it both creates more compassion and support for people as they make change, and, in many cases, helps people who might otherwise be shut down and not noticing (or owning) their own losses.

    As an extension to this thinking, I want to expand on two things in point #6: “Finally, ask your stakeholders how clear the communication and expectation-setting has been from their frame of reference. Does everyone know where to go for answers? Will people have enough lead time to prepare?”

    1. I think we rarely acknowledge clearly the time and energy that will need to be invested in the transitioning — We need to ask what is going to get pulled off people’s plates, or what other expectations will be temporarily lowered, so they have time to do this work.

    1. The communication piece is critical. One reason I often see confusion, resentment and “resistance to change” showing up is that people are not clear about what decisions have been made. Another is that people are often unclear about what their roles were/are in the decision-making and implementation processes. I wrote a piece on Clarifying Roles in Decision-Making ( to help groups get better at this part.


    Tasha Harmon
    New Perspectives Coaching, Training and Facilitation
    Making it easier for you to do your good work

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