Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Wetland Wanderer: Managing the Crisis of Change

wandererby Brenda Zollitsch, Policy Analyst, ASWM

Change is a constant, whether leading to gain or loss…or even a new and different equilibrium.  Unexpected, sudden changes can be the hardest.  These could be anything from changes in program budgets, staffing, leadership, political climate or development patterns to regulatory directives.  Life isn’t perfect and we can’t control things that change our world, no matter how we want things to be.  Instead of fighting change, we must adapt to a new normal or be undone by it.

At ASWM, we are seeing changes that affect wetland management on many fronts, including: 1) retirements and turnover in wetland program staff, 2) potential changes in the regulatory landscape with a more stripped-down regulatory focus from the new administration and the potential repeal/replacement of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule, and 3) climate change physically altering the land- and sea-scape, with rising sea levels, drought and changes in temperature and precipitation patterns impacting wetlands.

How do we manage all this change?  How do we set a course?  Allocate time, resources and energy in the face of such uncertainty?   We must prepare to create greater resiliency, rather than hold our ground in a losing battle against the inevitability of change. We have to adapt or be overtaken by our circumstances.  In this blog, I touch on a number of ideas that may help wetland managers think about change in ways that will allow for building personal and organizational resiliency.

Change is Hard

First of all, change is hard.  There is a fundamentally personal element to dealing with change and everyone deals with change differently.  The most common reaction is to try to restore everything back to the way it was.  Unfortunately, sometimes things cannot be reset to the previous state.  This often leads to a fight or flight reaction, as the person feels threatened.

Dealing with change often elicits a response that is similar to grieving.  Allowing people time to think about and share their concerns about change is critical.  People want to know — What does this mean for my job?  How does this impact programs that I developed?  When will these changes take place?  What is my role going to be in the future?  What control do I have in this situation?  There will be unexpected side effects and unintended consequences from change.  Common advice from change management experts is to not pretend everything is going to be better, because no one is going to buy that line.

Planning for Change

Organizations and policies have life cycles— knowing this helps anticipate some portion of the change; specific types of changes will likely occur at various points.  Efforts to create a workplace culture of leadership and staff prepared to adapt to changes is a first step.  This means working with staff to help them understand the types of changes that may occur and developing processes and contingency plans to deal with change. It involves talking about change and creating a workplace culture that understands that the organization, its mission and work will not always stay the way it is currently.  Staff need to know that change is inevitable.  Some changes will be big, some small.  Adaptive management approaches that anticipate that change of some kind will occur focus on providing leadership and staff with a set of skills and processes instead of developing one set plan.


Practice Dealing with Change

One way to increase flexibility is to practice change on a regular basis.  One change management consulting firm has a practice of regularly changing seating plans, simply to ensure that staff don’t get used to only one set of circumstances.  This is effective in setting a mindset of flexibility.  Organizational meetings can set aside time to regularly think about both how their work is currently changing and different ways it may change in the future.  Creating contingency and scenario-based plans develops a core sense of the ability not so much to solve specific problems, rather to establish a well-honed set of skills so staff are ready to tackle change problems as they emerge.

Dealing with the Big Ones – Unforeseen Changes that Affect “Everything”

stressWhile some changes can be predicted or easily addressed through organizational preparedness, there are others that are so unexpected and substantial that they leave people reeling.  These are the tsunami, tornado, wildfire or hurricane of problems.  They appear catastrophic.  They elicit a sense of shock.  They are “an event.” In most cases everything else has to stop to deal with them.  In these cases, there is usually no time set aside to process or deal with these events, so stress is ratcheted up simply by having to do everything already committed to AND address this new “crisis” at the same time.  While the same change under other circumstances might not have constituted a crisis, the nature of how it occurs often leads people to believing that it is one.

Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” illustrates that people will think of little else unless they have a basic sense of personal safety, something to eat and drink, and shelter.   When a project’s funding is cut or eliminated, regulations are changed that suddenly leave resources unprotected, or leadership changes radically — all of these can leave program managers in fight or flight mode.  My son recently showed me a game that has something called a “jump scare” in it — where a computerized character is walking along and something suddenly jumps out at the player.  These games have been shown to elevate the heart rate, change the pupil of the eyes and lead to rapid breathing patterns… and that’s just a game. When something unexpected and unpleasant happens, the natural response is fear or anxiety.  This comes from evolutionary responses that encourage survival.

IMG_6966What one needs to remember is that this reaction is natural.  While there is little one can do to keep such negative feelings from occurring, there is much one can do to manage them when they occur.   One of the best pieces of advice I read is from a blog on change management about controlling the urge to give in to that initial jump scare response from unexpected change.  Eric Morgan writes:

Our first reaction to a transition’s trigger is often to mobilize. For example, we quickly move to replace a job when faced with a job loss. My research revealed that these early big moves introduce risk in transition. We often make these early decisions more in response to the feelings accompanying the trigger — like fear or shame — instead of making the decision because of alignment with our own values or the meaning we seek.” 

The blog went on to explain that while most of these unexpected changes were challenging, those that led to the riskiest decisions were those that were made by people who responded immediately to the crisis.  When someone loses their job, they often panic and go get the first job they can find even if it is not a good fit.  They have to sell their house, so they move into the first one they can (or cannot) afford.

Our society conditions us to focus on binary singular outcomes, like success or failure. We effortlessly create these “on” or “off” mental models every day. While in some instances, this clear distinction can be a motivator, it stifles transition. Transition requires us to envision a new future and then validate that future through a series of experiments. The experiments are opportunities to learn. This learning requires us to focus on the right questions, not their answers nor their intended outcome.”

The blog points out that most of the decisions made were highly reactive and did not take into account other things that were important to the individual.  They also didn’t problem solve by looking to see what OTHER changes could be made in order to facilitate a better outcome in response to the change.  Because individuals tend to be resistant to change, the primary response is to stay away from more change.  However, this may be the best path to recover from the initial impact.

Learning to Self-Assess before Responding to Unexpected Change

To illustrate the power of self-assessment before responding to crisis, I draw on an example from my own life.  I am a registered Maine whitewater rafting guide.  While I don’t get on the river much these days, I guided rafts down Maine class 4 and 5 rivers for more than a decade.  One of the most critical observations I made during that time was how important mental state was to how people responded to falling into whitewater or landing underneath a flipped raft.  During safety talks we would share a great piece of advice that applies to not only landing in rapids, but for dealing with personal and professional changes into which we are thrown unexpectedly.  How you experience your “swim” in whitewater is 90% mental and 10% physical.  Customers in many ways chose to 1) either resist the river and panic or 2) to float through the whitewater willingly, experiencing a wild (and often exhilarating) ride.  To encourage the former, we always asked customers to take a second to collect their thoughts before reacting.  To do this, we would ask them when they hit the water to think to themselves “I’m okay.  I’m okay. I’m okay.”  Those who later recalled being in the water unexpectedly (and managed to keep their wits and assess their situation before responding) inevitably had a much more positive experience.  This is also true of military personnel who practice escaping from underwater vehicles.  Those who took a moment to self-calm before responding had a much higher success rate in getting out of the vehicle.


Organizational preparedness for change should include training staff on how to take that moment to assess the situation, learn how to triage and utilize the pre-practiced change management tools available.  When possible, managers should also build buy-in from those involved and affected (directly or indirectly); involve the right people in the design and implementation of changes to ensure the right changes are made; assess and address how the changes will affect people; tell everyone who’s affected about the changes; and get people ready to adapt by ensuring they have the right information, training and help.

Final Thoughts

In the end, what is needed is to: 1) be prepared for the upset, 2) understand the natural responses, 3) limit impulse moves in reaction to those feelings, and 4) have on hand a range of change management tools that can be activated effectively when change happens.  Finally, keep telling yourself, “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”  It is amazing the power these words have when facing the unknown.

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