Changes changes changes

In our Department, we hosted an event for “Learn at Work” week last fall and we asked former Assistant Deputy Minister, John McWhinnine, to come talk to us about weathering change.  As his words are still very timely, I’ve asked his permission to post a summary of this talk on this blog and he has kindly agreed.

John is now retired from the Public Service and now provides specialized services in Executive Coaching. He can be reached at

Change – How to Weather the Hurricane

Can see change as a “hurricane” there’s initial uncertainty and anxiety, then people prepare, stock up on supplies, and eventually it will pass over.

Remember that certain things remain constant in times of change:  We, as public servants, still have a service to provide to Canadians.

You can use an “A, B, C” framework to discuss how to manage change

A: Attitude – be positive, look for opportunities, some great examples given such as people started to job share and realized that they much preferred not working a full work week as it gave more time for spending with family; or regional staff given opportunities to telework from national headquarters.

B: Balance and Behaviour – Remember to take care of yourself (stay healthy, exercise, family time, hobbies, etc) . Many people react to change by panicking and working harder, hoping to be protected from the change.  We need to keep a balance on both the work and personal sides of our lives or we won’t be much good to anyone burned out. Managers in particular need to be positive role models (despite own personal anxiety).

C: Control: Focus on what you can do within your own control to weather the storm; we deal with change very poorly when we think that it is all out of our control.  We often spend too much time on things outside our circle of influence/control.  Panicking results from forgetting that we have things within our control.  (ed. Reminder of the serenity prayer: “Accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change what you can and wisdom to know the difference.”)

Examples of things within your control:

o   Ask yourself what you enjoy doing and what are opportunities to do more of this

o   Invest in yourself instead of worrying what change will “do to you”

o   Update your CV and brush up on your language levels

o   Look at your own skill set to see how you can start marketing yourself if need be

o   Join a committee which is accepting input on changes to the Department

o   If you’ve done everything within your control and situation still isn’t working, may be time to move on.

o   Think it through: May wish to play through the “what if?” scenarios to remind yourself that you have options or that the situation won’t be as dire once as you thought.

For managers

Biggest mistake is the failure to communicate – you may not have all the information, but hold a session to explain what you know and don’t know, or even have a “non-information” meeting and allow the discussion to happen, don’t stop team meetings as it allows the rumour mill to fill the void.

o   Once you know, communicate as soon as possible. People need information to take back control and plan for their personal situation.

  • Don’t make things up
  • Don’t sugar coat.
  • Remember that messages get lost in translation sometimes – “The ADM wants to be informed of all new permanent hires” may be mistakenly re-framed as “We can’t hire without ADM approval”

Thanks to John for coming to speak to us and giving his permission to share this summary more publicly.

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