Change happens: APSC offers tool for coping, managing

By Harley Dennett

August 26, 2014

Change is intrinsic to being a modern public servant. Elections bring new ministers, new policies and new commitments to be tracked. They can also bring the restructures, redundancies and doing more with less that is now being experienced in many federal departments.

The Australian Public Service Commission says it’s here to help, offering a new skills course for public servants facing departmental restructures: Dealing With Change. Yesterday, the first module of the change management program was made available as an interactive tool.

This need goes beyond workers in just the Department of Human Services, Australian Tax Office and Communications. The most recent State of the Service Report identified that 71% of APS employees were affected by some kind of workplace change. As the module tells public servants:

“Change is part of every aspect of life and the ability for individuals and organisations to adapt and change is critical for survival and success.

“For individuals, change is the inevitable result of growth, development and learning, while for societies and organisation, change is essential to progress, innovation and improvement. While we embrace some changes easily, we naturally resist others, sticking to the ways we already know or the values that are important to us. Yet, inherent in all of us is the ability to adapt and respond to our changing environment.”

The seven core attributes Dealing With Change tests are: resourcefulness, adaptability, optimism, confidence, adventurousness, tolerance for ambiguity, and passion/drive. Public servants who fail to measure up are given practical tips to improve, such as creating bucket lists of ideas, and ticking them as achievements.

It asks workers to consider their role amid the developments occurring in the public service, not just in restructures but technological, open data, increasing political literacy among the public, and demographic participation changes.

Dr Natalie Ferres and John Sautelle authored a paper for the module that offered that change is now a core “bankable” capability rather than an optional extra. Loss, fear, uncertainty and anxiety are all part of the reality of change, they report:

“Even minor change can trigger strong emotions and prompt resistance. For survival, the human brain is wired to treat uncertainty, a key feature of change, as a threat until proven otherwise. At the same time, to maximise efficiency and reduce effort, our brain wants to automate everything we do. This creates a natural resistance to changing deep seated habits and the mindsets which drive them, and explains why something as basic as having to learn how to use a new computer system can be treated as a mild threat by our brain, provoking an emotional response.”

Ferres and Sautelle argue public servants can change themselves by changing the way they think, and notably by adopting a proactive change mindset, workers can reduce the negative impacts of forced change. Reframing anxiety as excitement can also have a profound psychological benefit in reducing stress.

The APSC identified challenges for agencies and managers too. It’s not enough to just expect staff to adapt; agencies need to be aware of workplace health and safety responsibilities and watch out for the psychological risk to workers who have seen colleagues sacked and workloads increased.

The skills program found its origins as a priority recommendation in theAPS Leadership and Core Skills Strategy 2012-13, and developed with extensive consultation and research across the APS. The program is also offered under creative commons licence to state and local governments, but not available to the public.

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