The dreaded reorg

Originally posted Mar 22, 2022 • More resources on effective communication

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Back in 2017, I wrote an article about desk moves, and the surprising emotions we might see from our coworkers when a desk move is announced.

In that post, I used Paloma Medina’s brilliant BICEPS framework to illustrate how each person might respond really differently to a big, surprising change like a desk move. When any of the six core needs in BICEPS are threatened, our amygdala might kick off our fight or flight response, which can cause friction and chaos for us and those around us.

While desk moves haven’t been as common in the last few years of pandemic life, there has been one constant amygdala trigger that I’ve seen come up time and time again for folks at work: the dreaded reorg.

So let’s revisit BICEPS through the lens of reorgs, to understand (and prepare for) how humans might react in surprising ways to a change we don’t personally experience as threatening. Here are humans’ six core needs at work in BICEPS:

Belonging

The first core need for the modern human is huge. It’s the need to belong to a group, a clan, a tribe, etc. We ALL want to understand how we relate to this group, and we don’t want to ever feel othered or left behind.

When your team is affected by a reorg, how might your Belonging core need feel threatened?

You won’t be a part of the same group anymore. You might feel isolated or alienated. You might feel left behind. Maybe your team is being distributed, so you fear you won’t be able to engage with those people in the same way.

If you’re thinking, what? No! When I went through my last reorg I was frustrated with it for a completely different reason—yes! This is the tricky part. The same stimulus can threaten any of the six core needs, and the one that you’re feeling might be completely different than the one your teammate is feeling.

Improvement/Progress

Next up is the core need of feeling improvement or having that sense of making progress. That sense of progress could be for your organization, like you’re moving towards an important goal or mile marker. It could be about your team’s goals, or your team charter is really mission-driven and you’re making a hugely positive impact on your end users. It could be seeing improvement in your own career or life.

An announcement of a reorg may surprise someone who doesn’t see how it fits into a broader picture or plan. Reorgs can disrupt that feeling of moving forward, and can feel like a ridiculous distraction from the impact that you are aiming to have, or the goal the organization is trying to achieve.

See what I mean about how the same stimulus might threaten different core needs in different people? Let’s keep going!

Choice

Our third core need is Choice. Choice is the power to make decisions about your own life and work. You might call this autonomy. We need some balance of choice—not too much, not too little, and everyone’s preferred amount of choice is different.

If a reorg is dictated to you, rather than allowing you to choose which team you’re a part of or what you work on, your sense of control (stemming from choice) may feel threatened. Especially as organizations grow, there might be fewer and fewer opportunities for you and your coworkers to have full choice and autonomy over aspects of your work life.

Reorgs can also be a representation of a larger shift in a company’s culture or scale, so you might see it as an overwhelming representation of more loss of control to come.

Equality/Fairness

Equality is the idea that the world is fair, and people are treated as they should be. Everyone has equal access to succeed and have their needs met.

Organizational psychologists see teams ripped apart, companies destroyed and usership decline if there is a perception of lack of fairness. It’s huge.

Reorgs may feel unfair. Some people and groups are treated better than others (working on new shiny things, reporting to a popular VP, highly visible work, etc).

Some groups may have had more input or choice in the reorg, while others didn’t. While that could also be the Choice core need, you can see how it might flare up the Equality and Fairness core need, too.

Predictability

If every moment was 100% full of surprises, what would that feel like? Overwhelming? Exciting? A little of both?

It turns out, most humans need some balance of predictability and surprises. Too much surprise and our brains are overwhelmed with constant new data to process. Too little and our brains are bored. Science shows us that a pretty decent amount of stimulus is required to stay thriving.

The Predictability core need may be threatened by a surprising reorg announcement. You had an idea of what your quarter or year would look like. You had a sense of your roadmap and how you were being assessed, and what your benchmarks or OKRs were. When one even small thing in that plan and level of certainty shifts, it can be challenging.

Significance

This is essentially status. We want to know where we sit in a formal or informal hierarchy. For example, if we’re uninvited to a decision-making meeting, we may be amygdala hijacked because it could mean we’re not as important to decision-making as before.

But how might this core need be affected by a reorg? Maybe you were working on a high impact project, and now you won’t be. Maybe you were tracking for a promotion, but now the reorg has made that path a bit muddy, or even thrown the plan out the window. Or maybe you were lauded for the work your team had been doing, but now you won’t be with that team anymore.

So, what should we do?

Even with the most standard or routine or logical events (to us!), the same stimulus can cause a wide variety of reactions from folks.

The reaction might even be about something beyond the change you’re managing at the moment, within work or outside. A ton of events have threatened our amygdalas over the last few years: COVID, violence towards Black and AAPI communities, dangerous and unfair conditions of workplaces, borders closing around the world, the list goes on.* (If you could use some resources on managing through terrible times, read this!)

Plus, multiple core needs can feel threatened at the same time. And—I can’t emphasize this enough—not all of those core needs are equally important to everyone.

But don’t worry, there are plenty of things that you can do to prepare to announce a major change if that’s your role, or wrestle with your own BICEPS core needs that come up during these challenges.

Identify your teammates’ core needs

  1. Learn how to recognize when your teammates’ amygdalas are hijacked.
  2. Use these questions to help your teammates identify their own core needs.
  3. Use coaching reflections to help folks feel seen and heard.
  4. Get creative about addressing your teammates’ core needs. The reorg is still happening, or the desks are still moving, so how can we address folks’ core needs in a different way?

Create a communications plan

  1. Draft your communications plan and proactively address your teammates’ core needs with your messaging.
  2. Remain patient, even when your teammates are amygdala-hijacked. (I know it’s hard!)

Identify your own core needs

Even if the reorg itself isn’t threatening your BICEPS core needs, your teammates’ reactions might pose a threat! Think about which of these six core needs are coming up for you if any of their reactions surprise you and put you in that fight-or-flight state.

If these reactions are showing up during a 1:1, here’s how to handle the emotional weight.

And finally, especially when times are tough, be sure to recognize your wins.


* This list has been edited since I sent the original newsletter, thanks to some feedback from readers!

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Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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