When Change Means Loss

By Julia Williams
Interim Dean of Cross-Cutting Programs and Emerging Opportunities

Writing for the Mind/Shift website (where the focus is on K-12 education), Katrina Schwartz takes up the issue of how school principals and administrators can help teachers and staff deal with change. In summarizing the work of psychologist Robert Evans, Schwartz suggests that change for many people isn’t about “growth or capacity-building or learning; it’s about loss.” Evans has written extensively about change, but his observations are somewhat surprising: “Resistance to change is normal and necessary . . . If you are part of some big change in your school and you aren’t expecting resistance, there’s something wrong with your plan.”

How often do we as change agents expect a positive, enthusiastic reaction to our plans for change? Working on our own or with a team, we devise a new approach, program, or initiative, and we expect others to be as excited about it as we are. Then we are surprised when we encounter initial resistance. We may dismiss the concerns of others with phrases like “They just don’t get it!,” or “They hate change!”, or “They will appreciate all of our hard work once they see the change in action!” The tendency of many change agents is to drive on, discounting this resistance, maintaining focus on the change itself and disregarding the associated interpersonal issues that surround it. In the end, the change might be in place, but the price paid by the change agents can impact any future effort.

So how can change agents approach resistance differently, before even launching the project? What if we take time to reconceptualize resistance as loss and then empathize with those who are impacted by the change? Schwartz notes:

It’s rare for anyone’s first reaction to a call for change to be all positive. Much more often those pushing for change don’t realize that they are devaluing everything colleagues hold dear. Sometimes the call for change makes people feel like everything they’ve been doing up to that point has been wrong and bad for students. Worse, it can sound like a devaluation of how the teacher learned and, by extension, those who taught her. That’s a personal loss. Educators react negatively when they are asked to change not because they don’t want to do what’s best for kids, but because they feel bereaved.

In higher education, our approach to change could be radically different if we acknowledge the loss that our change means for faculty, staff, and administrators. In addressing the loss, our communication messages might sound remarkably like condolences we offer to mourners: “I know that this change affects you and your work significantly” or “By making this change, we are altering what is familiar and important to you.” In my own experience with change at my institution, I have never seen this approach used by members of the administration, and I speculate that such a realignment could shift the perspectives of faculty and staff.

Referring to the loss and acknowledging its impact on the individual does not alter the reality of the change itself. There may be an opportunity, however, to bring faculty and staff into a process of shaping plans for the future into a revised, shared vision. One possible response to loss is building something new, but change agents often ignore or exclude others who could be impacted in the change, delivering the future plan as a fait accompli. Consider coupling the acknowledgement of loss with a concrete effort to craft a shared vision in partnership with those who are experiencing the loss. By bringing these new partners into your effort, you create a path forward toward the change you and your collaborators can share together.


Robert Evans, The Human Side of School Change: Reform, Resistance, and the Real-Life Problems of Innovation”

Katrina Schwartz, “How School Leaders Can Attend to the Emotional Side of Change

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